Chapter 39 | Strung-Up | !Tention

Chapter Thirty Nine.

“Or dogs,” said Pen angrily. “What a fellow you are, Punch! Don’t you think we had enough to make us low-spirited and miserable without you imagining that the first howl you hear comes from one of those horrible brutes?”

“It’s all very well,” said Punch with a shudder. “I have heard dogs enough in my time. Why, I used to be once close to the kennel where they kept the foxhounds, and they used to set-to and sing sometimes all at once. Then I have heard shut-up dogs howl all night, and other sorts begin to howl when it was moonlight; but I never heard a dog make a noise like that. I am sure it’s wolves.”

“Well, perhaps you are right, Punch; but I suppose they never attack people except in the winter-time when they are starving and the ground’s covered with snow; and this is summer, and they have no reason for coming down from the mountains.”

“Oh, I say,” exclaimed the boy, “haven’t they just!”

“Will you hold your tongue, Punch!” cried Pen angrily. “This is a nice way to prepare ourselves for a tramp over the mountains, isn’t it?”

“Are we going to tramp over the mountains in the night?” said the boy rather dolefully.

“Yes, and be glad of the opportunity to get farther away from the French before morning.”

“But won’t it be very bad for your leg, comrade?”

“No worse than it will be for your back, Punch.”

“But wouldn’t it be better if we had a good rest to-night?”

“Where?” said Pen bluntly.

“In some goat-keeper’s cottage. We saw goats before we came here, and there must be people who keep them.”

“Perhaps so,” said Pen; “but I have seen no cottages.”

“We ain’t looked,” said Punch.

“No, and I don’t think it would be very wise to look for them in the dark. Come, Punch, don’t be a coward.”

“I ain’t one; but I can’t stand going tramping about in these mountains with those horrid beasts hunting you, smelling you out and following you wherever you go.”

“I don’t believe they would dare to come near us if we shouted at them,” said Pen firmly; “and we needn’t be satisfied with that, for if they came near and we fired at them they would never come near us again.”

“Yes, we have got the guns,” said the boy; and he unslung the one he carried and began to try the charge with the ramrod. “Hadn’t you better see if yours is all right too?” he said.

“Perhaps I had,” was the reply, “for we might have to use them for business that had nothing to do with wolves.”

As he spoke, Pen followed his comrade’s example, driving the cartridge and bullet well home, and then feeling whether the powder was up in the pan.

“Oh, I say,” cried the boy huskily, “there they go again! They’re coming down from high up the mountains. Hadn’t we better go lower down and try and find some cottage?”

“I don’t think so,” said Pen sturdily.

“But we might find one, you know—an empty one, just the same as we did before, when my back was so bad. Then we could shut ourselves in and laugh at the wolves if they came.”

“We don’t want to laugh at the wolves,” said Pen jocularly. “And it might make them savage. I know I used to have a dog and I could always put him in a rage by laughing at him and calling him names.”

“And now you are laughing at me. I can’t help it. I am ashamed perhaps; but, knowing what I do about the wolves, and what our chaps have seen— Ugh! It’s horrid! There they go again. Let’s get lower down.”

“To where the French are lying in camp, so that they may get hold of us again? Nonsense, Punch! What was the good of our slipping away if it was only to give ourselves up?”

“But we didn’t know then that we should run up against these wolves.”

“We are not going to run up against them, Punch, but they are going to run away from us if we behave like men.”

“But, don’t you see, I can’t behave like a man when I’m only a boy? Oh, there they go again!” half-whispered the poor fellow, who seemed thoroughly unnerved. “Come along, there’s a good chap.”

“No,” said Pen firmly. “You can’t behave like a man, but you can behave like a brave boy, and that’s what you are going to do. If we ever get back to our company you wouldn’t like me to tell the lads that you were so frightened by the howling of the wolves that you let me go on alone to face them, and—”

“Here, I say,” cried Punch excitedly, “you don’t mean to say that you would go on alone!”

“I mean to say I would,” said Pen firmly; “but I shall not have to, because you are coming on along with me.”

“No, I ain’t,” said the boy stubbornly.

“Yes, you are.”

“You don’t know,” continued the boy, through his set teeth. “Hanged if I do—so there!”

Pen laughed bitterly.

“Well, you are a queer fellow, Punch,” he said. “You stood by me yesterday and faced dozens of those French chasseurs, and fought till we had fired off our last cartridge, and then set-to to keep them off with the butt of your musket, though you were quite sure they would come on again and again.”

“Perhaps I did,” said the boy huskily, “because I felt I ought to as a soldier, and it was dooty; but ’tain’t a soldier’s dooty to get torn to pieces by wolves. Ugh! It’s horrid, and I can’t bear it.”

“Come on, Punch. I am going.”

“No, don’t! I say, pray don’t, comrade!” cried the boy passionately; and he caught at Pen’s arm and clung to it with all his might. “I tell you I’d shoulder arms, keep touch with you, and keep step and march straight up to a regiment of the French, with the bullets flying all about our ears. I wouldn’t show the white once till I dropped. You know I’d be game if it was obeying orders, and all our fellows coming on behind. I tell you I would, as true as true!”

“What!” said Pen, turning upon him firmly, “you would do that if you were ordered?”

“That I would, and I wouldn’t flinch a bit. You know I never did,” cried the boy passionately. “Didn’t I always double beside my company-leader, and give the calls whenever I was told?”

“Yes; and now I am going to be your company-leader to-night. Now then, my lad, forward!”

Pen jerked his arm free and stepped off at once, while his comrade staggered with the violence of the thrust he had received. Then, recovering himself, he stood fast, struggling with the stubborn rage that filled his young breast, till Pen was a dozen paces in front, marching sturdily on in the direction of the howls that they had heard, and without once looking back.

Then from out of the silence came the boy’s voice.

“You’ll be sorry for this,” he shouted.

Pen made no reply.

“Oh, it’s too bad of him,” muttered Punch. “I say,” he shouted, “you will be sorry for this, comrade. D’ye ’ear?”

Tramp, tramp, tramp went Pen’s feet over the stony ground.

“Oh, I say, comrade, this is too bad!” whimpered the boy; and then, giving his musket one or two angry slaps as if in an exaggerated salute, he shouldered the piece and marched steadily after his leader.

Pen halted till the boy closed up, and then started again.

“There, Punch,” he said quietly, “I knew you better than you know yourself.”

The boy made no reply, but marched forward with his teeth set; and evidently now thoroughly strung-up to meet anything that was in store, he stared straight before him into the darkness and paid no heed to the distant howls that floated to them upon the night-air from time to time.