Chapter 40 | Friends or Foes? | !Tention

Chapter Forty.

“This is rather hard work, Punch, lad,” said Pen, after a long silence; but the boy took no notice. “The ground’s so rugged that I’ve nearly gone down half-a-dozen times. Well, haven’t you anything to say?”

The boy kept his teeth firmly pressed together and marched on in silence; and the night tramp went on for quite a couple of hours, till, growing wearied out by the boy’s determination, Pen began again to try and break the icy reserve between them.

“What a country this is!” he said. “To think of our going on hour after hour never once seeing a sign of any one’s dwelling-place. Ah, look at that!” he exclaimed excitedly. “Do you see that light?”

“Yes,” said Punch sulkily, “a wolf’s eye staring at us.”

“Then he’s got one shut,” said Pen, laughing softly. “I can only see one. Why, you are thinking of nothing else but wolves. It’s a little watch-fire far away.”

Punch lowered his piece quickly and cocked it.

“Look out, comrade,” he said, “some one will challenge directly. Drop down together, don’t us, if he does?”

“I don’t think they will be sentries right up here,” said Pen.

“What then?”

“Shepherds,” replied Pen abruptly.

He was about to add, “to keep off the wolves,” but he checked himself in time, as he half-laughed and thought that it would scare his companion again.

Punch remained silent and marched on, keeping step, till they were getting very close to a tiny scrap of a smouldering fire; and then there was a rush of feet as if about a couple of dozen goats had been startled, to spring up and scatter away, with their horny hoofs pattering amongst the stones; and at the same moment the two lads became aware of the fact that after their habit the sturdy little animals had been sleeping around a couple of fierce-looking, goatskin-clothed, half-savage Spanish goat-herds, one of whom kicked at the fire, making it burst into a temporary blaze which lit up their swarthy features and flashed in their eyes, and, what was more startling still, on the blades of the two long knives which they snatched from their belts.

Amigos, amigos!” cried Pen, and he grounded arms, Punch following his example.

Amigos! No, Francéses,” shouted one of the men, as the fire burnt up more brightly; and he pointed at Pen’s musket.

No,” cried Pen, “Ingléses.” And laying down his piece near the fire, he coolly seated himself and began to warm his hands. “Come on, Punch,” he said, “sit down; and give me your haversack.”

The boy obeyed, and as the two men looked at them doubtingly Pen took the haversack, held it out, thrust his hand within two or three times, and shook his head before pointing to his lips and making signs as if he wanted to eat.

El pano, agua,” he said.

The men turned to gaze into each other’s eyes as if in doubt, and then began slowly to thrust their long, sharp knives into their belts; and it proved directly afterwards that Pen’s pantomime had been sufficiently good, for one of them strode away into the darkness, where the lads could make out a sort of wind-shade of piled-up stones, from which he returned directly afterwards with what proved to be a goatskin-bag, which he carried to his companion, and then went off again, to return from somewhere behind the stones, carrying a peculiar-looking earthen jar, which proved to be filled with water.

Just then Punch drew the two muskets a little farther from the fire, and to Pen’s surprise took off his jacket and carefully covered their locks.

“Afraid of the damp,” muttered Pen to himself; and then he smiled up in the face of the fiercer-looking of the two goat-herds as the man placed a cake of coarse-looking bread in his hands and afterwards turned out from the bag a couple of large onions, to which he added a small bullock’s horn whose opening was stopped with a ball of goatskin.

Bueno, bueno!” said Pen, taking the food which was offered to him with the grave courtesy of a gentleman; and, not to be outdone, he took the hand that gave and lightly raised it to his lips. The act of courtesy seemed to melt all chilling reserve, and the two men hurried to throw some heather-like twigs upon the fire, which began to burn up brightly, emitting a pleasant aromatic smoke. Then, seating themselves, the more fierce-looking of the pair pointed to the bread and held up the jar so that they could drink.

Amigos, amigos!” he said softly; and he took the jar in turn, drank to the lads, and gravely set it down between them; and then as Pen broke bread Punch started violently, for each of the men drew out his knife, and the boy’s hand was stretched out towards the muskets, but withdrawn directly as he realised the meaning of the unsheathed knives, each of the goat-herds snatching up one of the onions and beginning to peel it for the guests, before hastening to stick the point of his knife into the vegetable and hand both to their visitors.

“They scared me,” said Punch. “I say, don’t the onions smell good! Want a bit of salt, though.”

He had hardly said the word before the taller of the two men caught up the horn, drew out the ball-like wad which closed it up, and revealed within a reddish-looking powder which glistened in the light of the fire and proved to be rock-salt.

It was a very rough and humble meal, but Punch expressed his companion’s feelings when he said it was ’lishus.

“Worth coming for—eh, Punch?” said Pen, “and risking the wolves.”

“Here, I say, drop that, comrade. Don’t be hard on a fellow. One can’t help having one’s feelings. But I say, you looked half-scared too when these two Spaniards whipped out their knives.”

“I was more than half, Punch. But it was the same with them; they looked startled enough when we came upon them suddenly with our muskets and woke them out of sleep.”

“Yes; they thought we was Frenchies till you showed them we was friends.”

It was a rough but savoury meal, and wonderfully picturesque too, for the fire burned up briskly, shedding a bright light upon their hosts in their rough goatskin clothes, as they sat looking on as if pleased and amused at Punch’s voracity, while now the herd of goats that had scampered away into the darkness recovered from their panic and came slowly back one by one, to form a circle round the fire, where they stood, long-horned, shaggy, and full-bearded, looking in the half-light like so many satyrs of the classic times, blinking their eyes and watching the little feast as if awaiting their time to be invited to join in.

“I say,” said Pen suddenly, “that was very thoughtful and right of you, Punch, to cover over the muskets; but you had better put your jacket on again. These puffs of air that come down from the mountains blow very cold; when the fire flames up it seems to burn one cheek, while the wind blows on the other and feels quite icy. There’s no chance of any damp making the locks rusty. Put on your jacket, lad; put on your jacket.”

“That I don’t,” said the boy, in a half-whisper. “Who thought anything about dew or damp?”

“Why, you did.”

“Not likely, with the guns so close to the fire. Did you think I meant that?”

“Why, of course.”

“Nonsense! I didn’t want these Spaniels to take notice of them.”

“I don’t understand you, Punch.”

“Why, didn’t you tell them we was English?”

“Of course.”

“And at the same time,” said Punch, “put a couple of French muskets down before them, and us with French belts and cartridge-boxes on us all the time?”

“Oh, they wouldn’t have noticed that.”

“I don’t know,” said Punch. “These are rough-looking chaps, but they are not fools; and the French have knocked them about so that they hate them and feel ready to give them the knife at the slightest chance.”

“Well, there’s no harm in being particular, Punch; but I don’t think they will doubt us.”

“Well, I don’t doubt them,” said Punch. “What a jolly supper! I feel just like a new man. But won’t it be a pity to leave here and go on the march again? You know, I can’t help it, comrade; I shall begin thinking about the wolves again as soon as we start off into the darkness. Hadn’t we better lie down here and go to sleep till daylight?”

“I don’t know,” said Pen thoughtfully. “These men have been very friendly to us, but we are quite strangers, and if they doubt our being what we said ours would be a very awkward position if we went off to sleep. Could you go off to sleep and trust them?”

“Deal sooner trust them than the wolves, comrade,” said Punch, yawning violently, an act which was so infectious that it made his companion yawn too.

“How tiresome!” he exclaimed, “You make me sleepy, and if we don’t jump up and start at once we shall never get off.”

“Well then, don’t,” said Punch appealingly. “Let’s risk it, comrade. These two wouldn’t be such brutes as to use their knives on us when we were asleep. Look here! What do they mean now?”

For the two goat-herds came and patted them on the shoulders and signed to them to get up and follow.

“Why, they want us to go along with them, comrade,” said the boy, picking up the two muskets.

“Here, ketch hold, in case they mean mischief. Why, they don’t want to take us into the dark so that the goats shouldn’t see the murder, do they?”

“I am going to do what you suggested, Punch,” replied Pen, “risk it,” and he followed their two hosts to the rough-looking stone shelter which kept off the wind and reflected the warmth of the fire.

Here they drew out a couple of tightly rolled-up skin-rugs, and made signs that the lads should take them. No words were spoken, the men’s intention was plainly enough expressed; and a very short time afterwards each lad was lying down in the angle of the rough wall, snugly rolled in his skin-rug, with a French musket for companion; and to both it seemed as if only a few minutes had elapsed before they were gazing across a beautiful valley where mists were rising, wreath after wreath of half-transparent vapour, shot with many colours by the rays of the rising sun.