Chapter 38 | Hear That? | !Tention

Chapter Thirty Eight.

It was still dark, but there were faint suggestions of the coming day when Pen began to creep in the direction of a black patch which he felt must be forest.

This promised shelter; but he had first to thread his way amongst the wounded who lay sleeping around, and his difficulty was to avoid touching them, for they apparently lay thickest in the direction he had chosen.

Before he was aware of what he was doing he had laid his inert right hand upon an outstretched arm, which was drawn back with a sharp wince, and its owner uttered a groan. Bearing to the left and whispering to Punch to take care, Pen crept on, to find himself almost in contact with another sufferer, who said something incoherently; and then a whisper from Punch checked his companion.

“Come on,” said Pen hastily, “or they will give the alarm.”

“Not they, poor chaps! They are too bad. That sentry isn’t coming, is he?”

Pen glanced in the man’s direction, but he was not visible, for some low bushes intervened.

“I can’t see him,” said Pen.

“Then look here, comrade; now’s our time. It’s all fair in war. Every man for himself.”

“What do you mean? Don’t stop to talk, but come on.”

“All right; but just this,” came back in a whisper. “They can’t help themselves, and won’t take any notice whatever we do, unless they think we are going to kill them. Help yourself, comrade, the same as I do.”

Pen hesitated for a moment. Then, as he saw Punch busily taking possession of musket and cartouche-belt, he followed his example.

“It’s for life, perhaps,” he thought.

He had no difficulty in furnishing himself with the required arms from a pile, and that too without any of the wounded seeming to pay the slightest attention.

“Ready?” whispered Punch. “Got a full box?”

“Yes,” was the answer.

“Sling your musket then. Look sharp, for it’s getting light fast.”

Directly after the two lads were crawling onward painfully upon hands and knees, for every yard sent a pang through Pen’s wrists, and he thoroughly appreciated his comrade’s advice, for there were moments when he felt that had he been carrying the musket he would certainly have left it behind.

He did not breathe freely till he had entered the dark patch of woodland, where it was fairly open, and they had pressed on but a short distance in the direction of the mountain, which high up began to look lighter against the sky, when he started violently, for the clear notes of a bugle rang out from somewhere beyond the spot where the wounded lay, to be answered away to left and right over and over again, teaching plainly enough that it was the reveille, and also that they were in close proximity to a very large body of troops.

“Just in time, comrade,” said Punch coolly, as he rose to his feet.

“Take care!” cried Pen. “It isn’t safe to stand up yet.”

“Think not? Oh, we shall be all right,” replied the boy. “Lead on. Didn’t you know? The reveille was going right behind and off to the left and right; so there’s no troops in front, and all we have got to do is to get on as fast as we can up the mountain yonder. And it’s no good; I must walk. My wristies are so bad that if I try to crawl any more on my hands they will drop off. Ain’t yours bad?”

“Terribly,” replied Pen.

“Come on, then; we must risk it. There, right incline. Can’t you see? There’s a bit of a track yonder.”

“I didn’t see it, Punch,” said Pen, as they bore off to their right, where the way was more open, and they increased their pace now to a steady walk, a glance back showing them that they were apparently well screened by the low growth of trees which flourished in the bottom slopes of the mountains that they could now see more clearly rising in front.

“We’ve done it, comrade,” said Punch cheerily, “and I call this a bit of luck.”

“Don’t talk so loudly.”

“Oh, it don’t matter,” replied the boy. “They’re making too much noise themselves to hear us. Hark at them! Listen to the buzz! Why, it’s just as if there’s thousands of them down there, just as you thought; and we’ve hit on the right way, for those Frenchies wouldn’t come through here unless it was skirmishing with the enemy in front. Their enemy’s all behind, and they’ll be thinking about making their way back to the mine.”

“To see if they can’t make up for yesterday’s reverses. I’m afraid, Punch, it’s all over with the poor King and his followers.”

“Yes,” said Punch thoughtfully, as he trudged on as close as he could get to his companion. “It’s a bad lookout for them, comrade; but somehow I seem to think more of Mr Contrabando. I liked him. Good luck to the poor chap! And when we get a bit farther on we will pitch upon a snug spot where there’s water, and make a bit of breakfast.”

“Breakfast! How?” said Pen, smiling; but, wearied out and faint with his sufferings, it was a very poor exhibition of mirth—a sort of smile and water, like that of a sun-gleam upon a drizzly day. “Breakfast!” he said, half-scornfully, “You are always thinking of eating, Punch.”

“That I ain’t, only at bugle-time, when one blows ‘soup and tater’ for breakfast or dinner. I say, do you know what the cavalry chaps say the trumpet call is for stables?”

“No,” said Pen quietly; and then to humour his companion he tried to smile again, as the boy said, “Oh, I know lots of them! This is what the trumpet says for the morning call:—

        “Ye lads that are able

        Now come to the stable,

And give all your horses some water and hay–y–y–y!”

And the boy put his half-crippled fist to his lips and softly rang out the cavalry call.

“Punch!” whispered Pen angrily, “how can you be such a fool?”

“Tchah! Nobody can hear us. I wanted to cheer you up a bit. Well, it has stirred you up. There: all right, comrade. For’ard! We are safe enough here. But, I say, what made you jump upon me and tell me I was always thinking about eating when I said breakfast?”

“Because this is no time to think of eating and drinking.”

“Oh my! Ain’t it?” chuckled the boy. “Why, when you are on the march in the enemy’s country you ought to be always on the forage, and it’s the time to think of breakfast whenever you get the chance.”

“Of course,” said Pen.

“Well, ain’t we got the chance? We was too busy to think of eating all yesterday, and while we were lying tied up there like a couple of calves in a farmer’s cart.”

“Well, are we much better off now, Punch?”

“Much better—much better off! I should think we are! It was talking about poor Mr Contrabando that made me think of it. Poor chap! I hope he will be able to repulse, as you call it, the Frenchies at the next attack. He is well provisioned; that’s one comfort. And didn’t he provision us? My haversack’s all right with what I helped myself to at breakfast yesterday. Ain’t yours?”

Pen clapped his hand to his side. “No,” he said. “The band was torn off, and it’s gone.”

“What a pity! Never mind, comrade. Mine’s all right, and regular bulgy; and, as they say, what’s enough for one is enough for two; so that will be all right. I say, ain’t it getting against the collar?”

“Yes, we are on the mountain-slope, Punch.”

“Think we are not getting up the same mountain where the old mine is?”

“No, Punch. That must be off more to the right, I think.”

“Yes, I suppose so. But of course we ain’t sure; and I suppose we are not going anywhere near the old padre’s place?”

“No, Punch; that lies farther away still to the right.”

“Yes. But, I say, how you seem to get it into your head where all the places lie! I can’t. It seems to me as if you could make a map.”

“No, no. But I suppose if I wandered about here for long enough I should be able to make out some of the roads and tracks.”

“Then I suppose you haven’t been here long enough,” said the boy banteringly. “If you had, you would be able to tell where the British army is, and lead right on to it at once.”

“That would be rather a hard job, Punch, when troops are perhaps changing their quarters every day.”

“I say, hear that?” said the boy excitedly, as a distant call rang out.

“Yes, plain enough to hear,” replied Pen.

“Then we ought to turn back, oughtn’t we?”

“No. Why?”

“Some of the Frenchies in front. That was just before us, half a mile away.”

Pen shook his head, and the boy looked at him wonderingly.

“There! There it is again! Let’s get into hiding somewhere, or we shall be running right into them.”

For another clear bugle-note rang out as if in answer to the first.

“That’s nothing to mind, Punch,” said Pen. “These notes came from behind, and were echoed from the mountain in front.”

“Why, of course! But I can’t help it. Father always said that I had got the thickest head he ever see. I got thinking that we were going to run right into some French regiment. Then it’s all right, and we shall be able to divide our rations somewhere up yonder where the echoes are playing that game. I say, what a mistake might be made if some officer took an echo like that for the real thing!”

“Yes,” said Pen thoughtfully; and the two lads stopped and listened to different repetitions of the calls, which seemed fainter and fainter as the time went on; and the sun was well up, brightening as lovely a landscape of mountain, glen, and green slope as ever met human eye.

But it was blurred to Pen by the desolation and wildness of a country that was being ravaged by invasion and its train of the horrors of war.

As the lads tramped on, seeing no sign of human habitation, not even a goat-herd’s hut on the mountain-slopes, the sun grew hotter and the way more weary, till all at once Punch pointed to a few goats just visible where the country was growing more rugged and wild.

“See that, comrade?” he cried.

“Yes, goats,” said Pen wearily; and he stopped short, to throw himself down upon a heathery patch, and removed his cap to wipe his perspiring forehead.

“No, no; don’t sit down. Don’t stop yet,” cried Punch. “I didn’t mean those old goats. Look away to the left in that hollow. Can’t you see it sparkling?” And the boy pointed to the place where a little rivulet was trickling down the mountain-side to form a fall, the water making a bright leap into a fair-sized pool. “Let’s get up yonder first and sit down and see what I have got in my haversack. Then a good drink of water, and we shall be able to go on, and perhaps find where our fellows are before night.”

“Yes, Punch—or march right into the lines of the French,” said Pen bitterly.

“Oh, well, we must take our chance of that, comrade. One’s as likely as the other. There’s the French troops about, and there’s our English lads—the lads in red as well as the boys in green. No, it’s no use to be down in the mouth. We are just as likely to find one as the other. I wonder how they are getting on up there in the old mine. Shall we be near enough to hear if there’s any fighting going on?”

“Perhaps,” said Pen, springing up. “But let’s make for that water.”

But it was farther off than it had at first appeared, and it was nearly half an hour after they had startled the browsing goats when the two weary lads threw themselves down with a sigh of content beside the mountain pool, which supplied them with delicious draughts of clear cold water as an accompaniment to the contents of the haversack which Punch’s foresight had provided.

“Ah!” sighed the boy. “’Lishus, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, delicious,” said Pen.

“Only one thing agin it,” said Punch.

“One thing against it,” said Pen, looking up, “Why, it could not have been better.”

“Yes,” said the boy sadly. “It waren’t half enough.”

“Hark! Listen!” said Pen, holding up his hand.

“Guns firing!” exclaimed Punch in a whisper. “Think that’s in the little valley that leads up to the old mine?”

“It’s impossible to say,” replied Pen. “It’s firing, sure enough, and a long way off; but I can’t tell whether it’s being replied to or whether we are only listening to the echoes.”

“Anyhow,” said Punch, “it’s marching orders, and I suppose we ought to get farther away.”

“Yes,” replied Pen with a sigh. “But how do you feel? Ready to go on now?”

“No, not a bit. I feel as if I want to take off my coat and bathe my arms in the water here, for they ache like hooray.”

“Do it, then,” said Pen wearily, “and I must do the same to my wound as well; and then, Punch, there’s only one thing I can do more.”

“What’s that, comrade?”

“Get in the shade under that grey-looking old olive, and have a few hours’ sleep.”

“Splendour!” said Punch, taking off his coat. “Hark at the firing!”

“Yes,” said Pen wearily, as he followed his comrade’s example. “They may fire, but I am so done up that they can’t keep me awake.”

The water proved to be a delicious balm for the bruised limbs and the wound—a balm so restful and calming to the nerves that somehow the sun had long set, and the evening star was shining brilliantly in the soft grey evening sky when the two sleepers, who had lain utterly unconscious for hours, started awake together, wondering what it all meant, and then prepared themselves to face the darkness of the coming night, not knowing what fate might bring; but Pen felt a strange chill run through his breast with a shiver as Punch exclaimed in a low, warning whisper, “I say, comrade, hear that? Wolves?”