Chapter 42 | Friend and Enemy | !Tention

Chapter Forty Two.

The two lads started off light-hearted and hopeful, for if they could trust the goat-herds, whose information seemed to be perfectly correct, a day’s journey downward to the river in the valley, though seeming far distant, must bring them pretty near the goal they sought—in other words, the headquarters of the army that had crossed over from Portugal into Spain to drive back the French usurper, the task having been given to England’s most trusted General, Wellesley, who was in time to come always to be better known as Wellington.

Thanks to the goat-herds, the lads were well provisioned for a day; but at the same time, and again thanks to their hosts of the past night, they were sadly crippled for their task.

It was not long before they began to feel how badly they were equipped, for the principal production of the part of the country they traversed seemed to be stones, from the smallest sharp-cornered pebble up to huge blocks half the size of a house. But for hours they trudged on sturdily, chatting cheerfully at first, then growing silent, and then making remarks which were started by Punch.

“Say, comrade,” he said, “is Spain what they call a civilised country?”

“Yes, and one of the most famous in Europe; at least, it used to be.”

“Ah, used to be!” said Punch sharply. “Used. ’Tain’t now. I don’t call a place civilised where they have got roads like this.”

“Yes, it is rough,” said Pen.

“Rough! Rough ain’t the word for it,” grumbled Punch. “If we go on much farther like this I shall wear my feet to the bone. Ain’t it time we sat down and had a bit of dinner?”

“No,” replied Pen. “We will sit down and rest if you like, but we must try and husband our provisions so as to make them last over till to-morrow night.”

“What’s to-morrow night got to do with it? We ought to be along with the British army by to-night; and what’s husbands got to do with it? We are not going to share our prog with anybody else, and if it’s husbands, how do we know they won’t bring their wives? Bother! You will be telling me they are going to bring all their kids next.”

“Is that meant for a joke, Punch? Let’s go a little farther first. Come along, step out.”

“Step out indeed!” grumbled the boy. “I stepped out first thing—right out of my boots. I say, comrade, oughtn’t the soles of our feet to begin to get hard by now?”

“Don’t talk about it, Punch.”

“Oh, you can feel it too? If it’s like this now, what’s it going to be by to-night? I did not know that it was going to be so bad. If I had, blest if that goat-stalker should have had my boots! I’d have kept them, and shared them—one apiece—and every now and then we could have changed foots. It would have been better then, wouldn’t it?”

“I don’t know, Punch. Don’t think about it. Let’s go on till we get to the first spring, and then rest and bathe our feet.”

“All right.”

The boys kept on their painful walk for another hour; and then, the spring being found, they rested and bathed their tender soles, partook of a portion of their provisions, and went on again.

That night the river seemed to be as far off as ever, and as they settled upon a sheltered spot for their night’s rest, and ate their spare supper, Punch hazarded the remark that they shouldn’t overtake the army the next day. Pen was more hopeful, and that night they fell asleep directly, with Punch quite forgetful of the wolves.

The morning found the travellers better prepared for the continuance of their journey, and they toiled on painfully, slept for another night in a patch of forest, and started off at the first blink of dawn so as to reach the river, which was now flowing swiftly westward on their left.

Their provisions were finished, all but a scrap of the bread which was so hard that they were glad to soak it in the river; but in spite of their pain they walked on more bravely, their sufferings being alleviated by the water, which was now always on their left, and down to whose bubbling surface they descended from time to time.

“I say,” said Punch, all at once, “I hope those chaps were right, because we have come a long way, and I can’t see no sign of the army. You must have patience, Punch.”

“All right; but it’s nearly all used up. I say, look here, do you think the army will be this side of the river?”

“Can’t say, Punch.—I hope so.”

“But suppose it’s the other side. How are you going to get across? Are we likely to come to a town and a bridge?”

“No; we are too far away up in the mountains. But I dare say we shall be able to find a ford where we can cross.”

“Oh!” said Punch thoughtfully; and they journeyed on, beginning to suffer now from hunger in addition to weariness and pain; and just about midday, when the heat of the sun was beating down strongly in the river valley, Punch limped off painfully to where an oak-tree spread its shady boughs, and threw himself prone.

“It’s all up, comrade,” he said. “Can’t go no farther.”

“No, no; don’t give way,” said Pen, who felt painfully disposed to follow his companion’s example. “Get well into the shade and have a few hours’ sleep. It will be cooler by-and-by, and we shall get on better after a rest. There, try and go to sleep.”

“Who’s to sleep with a pair of red-hot feet and an empty cupboard? I can’t,” said Punch. And he took hold of his ankles, drew them up, and sat Chinese-tumbler fashion, rocking himself to and fro; while with a weary sigh Pen sank down beside him and sat gazing into the sunny distance.

“Couldn’t we get over to the other side?” said Punch at last. “It’s all rocks and stones and rough going this side, and all green and meadowlike over the other. Can you swim?”

“Yes, pretty well,” said Pen; “but I should be too tired to try.”

“So can I, pretty tidy. I am tired, but not too tired to try. Let’s just rest a bit, and then swim across. It runs pretty fast, but ’tain’t far, and if it carried us some way down, all the better.”

“Very well, after a bit I don’t mind if we try,” said Pen; “but I must rest first.”

Then the boys were silent for a time, for Punch, whose eyes were wandering as he scanned the distance of the verdant undulating slope on the other side of the river, suddenly burst out with: “Yes, we had better get across, for our chaps are sure to be on the other side of the river.”

“Why?” said Pen drowsily.

“’Cause we are this. Soldiering always seems to be going by the rules of contrary; and—there!” cried the boy excitedly, “what did I tell you? There they are!”

“What, our men? Where?” cried Pen excitedly.

“Right over yonder, a mile away.”

“I can see nothing.”

“You don’t half look,” cried Punch angrily, bending forward, nursing his tender feet and staring wildly into the distance. “I ketched sight of a bit of scarlet ever so far off, and that must mean Bri’sh soldiers.”

“No; it might be something painted red—or a patch of poppies perhaps.”

“Oh, go it!” cried Punch angrily. “You will say next it is a jerrynium in a red pot, same as my mother always used to have in her window. It’s red-coats, I tell you. There, can’t you see them?”


“Tchah! You are not looking right. Look yonder—about a mile away from the top of that hill just to the right of that bit of a wood. Now, do you see?”

“No,” said Pen slowly. “Yes, I do—men marching. Do you see that flash in the sunlight. Bayonets! Punch, you are right!”

“Ah!” said the boy. “Now then, what do you say to a swim across?”

“Yes, I am ready,” said Pen. “How far is it, do you think?”

“About a hundred yards,” replied the boy. “Oh, we ought to do that easy. You see, it will be only paddle at first, and then wade till you get up to your chest, and then swim. Perhaps we sha’n’t have to swim at all. Rough rivers like this are always shallow. When you are ready I am. We sha’n’t have to take off our shoes and stockings; and if we get very wet, well, we can wring our clothes, and they will soon dry in the sun. Look sharp and give the word. I am ready for anything with the British army in sight.”

There was no hesitation now. The lads took the precaution of securing their cartouche-boxes between the muzzle of their pieces and the ramrod; and, keeping the muskets still slung so that at any moment they could let them drop loose to hang from the shoulder, they stepped carefully down amongst the stones until the pleasantly cool water began to foam above their feet, and then waded carefully on till they were knee-deep and began to feel the pressure of the water against their legs.

“Ain’t going to be deep,” said Punch cheerily. “Don’t it feel nice to your toddlers? How fast it runs, though! Why, if it was deep enough to swim in it would carry you along faster than you could walk. It strikes me that we shall get across without having it up to one’s waistbelt.”

The boy seemed pretty correct in his judgment, for as they carefully waded on—carefully, for the bottom was very uneven—they were nearly half across, and still the water was not so deep as the boy had prophesied.

“There! What did I tell you?” he said; and then with his next step he caught at his companion’s hand and went down to his chin.

The result was that Pen lost his balance, and the pair, half-struggling, half-swimming for about a dozen yards, were carried swiftly along to where a patch of rock showed itself in mid-stream with the water foaming all around.

They were swept right round against the rocks, and found bottom directly, struggling up, with the swift stream only now to their knees.

“What a hole!” cried Pen, panting a little with his exertions. “I say, you must take care, Punch.”

“Oh yes, I will take care,” said the boy, puffing and choking. “I don’t know how much water I have swallowed. But it’s all shallow now, and we are half-over. How about your cartridges? Mine’s all wet.”

“Then I suppose mine are too,” said Pen.

“Never mind,” cried Punch cheerfully. “Perhaps they will be all right if we lay them out to dry in the sun. Now then, are you ready? It looks as if it will be all shallow the rest of the way.”

“I sha’n’t trust it,” said Pen, “so let’s keep hold of hands.”

They started again, yielding a little to the stream, and wading diagonally for the bank on Punch’s left, but making very slow progress, for Pen noted that the water, which was rough and shallow where they were, seemed to flow calmly and swiftly onward a short distance away, and was evidently deep.

“Steady! Steady!” cried Pen, hanging away a little towards the bank from which they had started.

“All right; I am steady enough, only one can’t do as one likes. It’s just as if all the water was pushing behind. Ah! Look out, comrade!”

Pen was already looking out, and he had need, for once more his companion had stepped as it were off a shelf into deep water, and the next moment, still grasping Punch’s hand with all his might, he was striking out; and then together they were being borne rapidly down by the stream.