Chapter 4 | Water, or I Shall Die! | !Tention

Chapter Four.

Pen’s heart beat heavily as he lay listening to the tramping of feet upon the rocky shelf, and at last the sounds seemed so close that he drew himself together ready to spring to his feet and do what he could to protect his injured comrade. For in his strange position the idea was strong upon him that their first recognition by the enemy might be made with the presentation of a bayonet’s point.

But his anticipations proved to be only the work of an excited brain; and, as he lay perfectly still once more, the heavy tramp, tramp, a good deal wanting in the regularity of the British troops, died out, and he relieved the oppression that bore down upon his breast with a deep sigh.

Nothing was visible as the sounds died out; and, waiting till he felt that he was safe, he changed his position slightly so as to try and make out whether the rear-guard of the enemy had quite disappeared.

In an instant he had shrunk down again amongst the bushes, for there, about a hundred yards away, at the point of an angle where the mule-path struck off suddenly to the left, and at a spot that had undoubtedly been chosen for its command of the road backward, he became aware of the presence of an outpost of seven or eight men.

This was startling, for it put a check upon any attempt at movement upon his own part.

Pen lay thinking for a few moments, during which he made sure that his comrade was still plunged in a deep, stupor-like sleep. Then, after a little investigation, he settled how he could move slightly without drawing the attention of the vedette; and, taking advantage thereof, crawled cautiously about a couple of yards with the greatest care. Then, looking back as he slowly raised his head, which he covered with a few leafy twigs, he was by no means surprised to see at the edge of the mule-path about a quarter of a mile away another vedette. This shut off any attempt at retreat in that direction, and he was about to move again when he was startled by a flash of light reflected from a musket-barrel whose bearer was one acting as the leader of a third vedette moving up the side of the valley across the river, and which soon came to a halt at about the same height above the stream as that which he occupied himself.

The lad could not control a movement of impatience as the little knot of infantry settled themselves exactly opposite to his own hiding-place, and in a position from which the French soldiers must be able to control one slope of the valley for a mile in each direction.

“It’s maddening!” thought Pen. “I sha’n’t be able to stir, and I dare say they’ll have more vedettes stationed about. It means giving up, and nothing else.”

Very slowly and cautiously he wrenched himself round, and then rolled over twice so as to bring himself alongside of his sleeping comrade; and then, as he resumed his reconnoitring, where he was just able to command the farther side of the valley away to his right and in a direction where he hoped to find the land clear, he started again.

“Why, they are everywhere!” said the lad half-aloud and with a faint groan of dismay; for there, higher up the opposite side, were a couple of sentries who seemed to be looking straight down upon him. “Why, they must have seen me!” he muttered; and for quite an hour now he lay without stirring, half in the expectation of seeing the low bushes in motion and a little party of the blue-coated enemy coming across to secure fresh prisoners.

But the time wore on, with the chill of the night dying out in the warm sunshine now beginning to search Pen’s side of the valley with the bright shafts of light, which suggested to him the necessity for covering his well-kept rifle with the leafy twigs he was able to gather cautiously so as not to betray his presence.

He was in the act of doing this when, turning his head slightly, a flash of light began to play right into his eyes, and he stopped short once more to try and make out whether this had been seen by either of the enemy on duty, for he now awoke to the fact that poor Punch’s bugle was lying quite exposed.

The fact was so startling that, instead of trying to reach its cord and draw the glistening instrument towards him, he lay perfectly still again, sweeping the sides of the valley as far as he could in search of danger, but searching in vain, till the thought occurred to him that he might achieve the object he had in view by cautiously taking out his knife and cutting twig after twig so that they might fall across the curving polished copper.

This he contrived to do, and then lay still once more, breathing freely in the full hope that if he gave up further attempt at movement he might escape detection.

“Besides,” he said to himself, with a bitter smile playing upon his lips, “if they do make us out they may not trouble, for they will think we are dead.”

He lay still then, waiting for Punch to awaken so that he could warn him to lie perfectly quiet.

The hours glided by, with the sun rising higher and setting the watcher thinking, in spite of his misery, weariness, and the pangs of hunger that attacked him, of what a wonderfully beautiful contrast there was between the night and the day. With nothing else that he could do, he recalled the horrors of the past hours, the alternating chills of cold and despair, and the howlings of the wolves; and he uttered more than one sigh of relief as his eyes swept the peaks away across the valley, which here and there sent forth flashes of light from a few scattered patches of melting snow, the beautiful violet shadows of the transverse gullies through which sparkling rivulets descended with many a fall to join the main stream, which dashed onward with the dull, musical roar which rose and fell, now quite loud, then almost dying completely away. The valley formed a very paradise to the unfortunate fugitive, and he muttered bitterly:

“How beautiful it would have been under other circumstances, when such a wondrous scene of peace was not disfigured by war! So bitterly cold last night,” thought the young private impatiently, for he was fighting now against two assaults, both of which came upon him when he was trying hard to lie perfectly still and maintain his equanimity while the pangs of hunger and thirst were growing poignant. “It seems so easy,” he muttered, “to lie still and keep silence, and here I am feeling that I must move and do something, and wanting so horribly to talk. It would be better if that poor boy would only awaken and speak to me. And there’s that water, too,” he continued, as the faint plashing, rippling sound rose to his ears from below. “Oh, how I could drink! I wish the wind would rise, so that I couldn’t hear that dull plashing sound. How terribly hot the sun is; and it’s getting worse!”

Then a horrible thought struck him, that Punch might suddenly wake up and begin to talk aloud, feverish and delirious from his sufferings; and then when Pen’s troubles were at their very worst, and he could hardly contain himself and keep from creeping downwards to the water’s edge, it seemed as if a cloud swept over him, and all was blank, for how long he could not tell, but his fingers closed sharply to clutch the twigs and grass amongst which he lay as he started into full consciousness.

“Why, I have been asleep!” he muttered. “I must have been;” and he stared wildly around. There was a great shadow there, and now the sun is beating down upon that little gully and lighting up the flashing waters of the fall. “Why, I must have been sleeping for hours, and it must be quite midday.”

His eyes now sought the positions of the different vedettes, and all was so brilliant and clear that he saw where the men had stood up their muskets against bush or tree, noted the flash from bayonets and the duller gleam from musket-barrels. In one case, too, the men were sheltering themselves beneath a tree, and this sent an additional pang of suffering through the lad, as he felt for the first time that the sun was playing with burning force upon his neck.

“It’s of no use,” he said. “Even if they see me, I must move.”

But he made the movement with the mental excuse that it was to see how his wounded companion fared.

It only meant seizing hold of a clump of wiry heather twice over and drawing himself to where his face was close to the sleeper. Then he resigned himself again with a sigh to try and bear his position.

“He’s best off,” he muttered, “bad as he is, for he can’t feel what I do.”

How the rest of that day of scorching sunshine and cruel thirst passed onward Pen Gray could not afterwards recall. For the most part it was like a feverish dream, till he awoke to the fact that the sun was sinking fast, and that from time to time a gentle breath of cool air was wafted down from the mountains.

Then the hunger began to torture him again, though at times the thirst was less. His brain was clearer, though, and he lay alternately watching the vedettes and noting that they had somewhat changed their positions, and trying to perfect his plans as to what he must do as soon as the shades of night should render it possible for him to move unseen.

Finally, the last sentry was completely blotted out by the gathering darkness; and, uttering the words aloud, “Now for it!” Pen tried to raise himself to his knees before proceeding to carry out his plan, when he sank back again with an ejaculation half of wonder, half of dread. For a feeling of utter numbness shot through him, paralysing every movement; while, prickling and stinging, every fibre of his frame literally quivered as he lay there in despair, feeling that all his planning had been in vain, and that now the time had arrived when he might carry out his attempt in safety the power of movement had absolutely gone.

How long he lay like this he could not tell, but it was until the night-breeze was coming down briskly from the mountains, and the sound of the plashing water far below sent a sudden feeling of excitement through his nerves.

“Water!” he muttered. “Water, or I shall die!”