Chapter 4 | Our Soldier Boy

Chapter Four.

Dick could remember every thing that took place then, though all that had occurred before he was hurt still remained blank. He remembered the crashing volleys fired from both sides of the gorge, and the way in which the long line of the marching regiment faced both ways and fired again, before making a brave charge forward, led by their officers, to fight their way through the enemy in front, but only to be beaten back, withered as their formation was by the terrible fire on all sides. He remembered this, and how all of a sudden, as the mule he rode was carried along in the crowd, and he clung tightly to the bundle with which it was loaded, the poor beast suddenly stood still, uttered a strange squeal, and then reared up so that Dick was nearly jerked off. But the poor animal, which had been pierced through the lungs by a bullet, came down again on all-fours, and then dashed off at full gallop towards the clouds of smoke in front, bore off to the left as some dimly-seen men stabbed at it with their bayonets, and tore on over rock and bush, higher and higher up the side of the gorge, with Dick still clinging tightly to the ropes of the bundle, till all at once it uttered a shrill cry, reared up again, and then fell, throwing the boy down among the tangled growth, rolled over, once kicked out its legs for a few moments, and then lay perfectly still.

Dick lay as still for a few minutes, feeling too much startled to move. Then he managed to crawl out of the rocky rift into which he had been thrown, and stood up, all ragged, with his red coatee split up the back, and one sleeve torn out at the shoulder.

For a few minutes he stood listening to the shouting and firing far below and watched the smoke curling up; his face was all puckered up, and he rubbed himself where he was pricked and scratched. Then he examined his damaged clothes, and lastly he climbed up to where the mule lay, on its side with its heels higher up the slope than its stretched-out neck and head.

“Poor old fellow!” he said. “Did the shooting frighten you? Come on, get up.”

But the mule did not stir, and the boy knelt down by it to raise its head a little, but only to let it sink back, and shrink away, in horror—the poor animal, who had always been ready to eat grass or pieces of unripe melon from his hand, lay dead, pierced by the bullet, and bayonetted in three places by the French.

And now the tears which the little fellow had manfully kept back began to flow fast, and he knelt down by the poor beast’s side, feeling stunned.

And as he knelt there the firing went on, but in a scattered way, as the 200th fell back with the enemy in full pursuit, the boy turning at last to watch the progress of the fight far below and seeing the scarlet coats of his friends growing more and more distant in the smoke, and the blue uniforms of the French as they crowded after them, till the reports of the muskets grew faint; and the echoes from high up on either side of the gorge more soft till they died away.

Dick’s first idea was to hurry off, but there was only one way, and that was down the wooded ravine; but he could not go that way, for the place between him and his friends was swarming with the French soldiers, and he shuddered at the thought of trying to get through them. He had of late seen and heard so much of their cruel acts.

What should he do?

He had hardly asked himself this question when he heard a shout, and his heart leaped—it was his friends coming back.

No; he could see below him the uniforms of the French soldiers, and their bayonets flashing in the golden light of the sinking sun, and in fear he shrank back among the thick bushes and hid below the place where he had been thrown, to lie listening as the voices came nearer, a peep or two that he stole showing that the enemy were spread out low down by the rugged track, evidently very busy, and it seemed to the boy that they were hunting for him to kill him.

He grew more and more sure of this as the voices came nearer, but at last he realised the truth—that the men were searching amongst the bushes for the wounded and dead.

This went on for an hour, and Dick’s courage rose as he saw them carrying man after man down to the track, men in red and men in blue, and bearing them away, with the voices growing fewer and fewer.

“And it will soon be dark,” the boy said to himself, “and then I can go back and find mother and father.”

Just then he heard shouts again, and he shrank back beneath the bushes, to listen, not understanding a word; but the voices came nearer and nearer and Dick’s heart sank, for there was a shout and two men ran up to within a dozen yards of where the boy lay.

“They can see me, and are going to shoot,” he thought, and he shut his eyes and shivered, and thought of the corporal and his wife.

But no shot was fired; no bright keen bayonet plunged through the bushes; and taking courage the boy raised his head and peered upward towards where two French soldiers were busy doing something, and another came and joined them, to stand talking and laughing.

Then the boy grasped the fact that they had seen the mule, and were cutting the ropes and opening the pack to see if there was anything worth taking.

At last the notes of a bugle came echoing up the ravine from side to side.

The soldiers immediately rose from where they were busy, shouldered their muskets, and began to descend the slope, while Dick lay listening to the crackling and brushing sounds as they forced their way through the bushes. There was another bugle call, and some time after another, sounding quite faint, and as the boy crept out of his hiding-place at last, to find the contents of the mule’s pack, the belongings of the corporal’s mess for the most part scattered about the ground, he looked keenly in search of danger!

And how still it was! Not a sound—even the cry of a bird; only a faint silvery rippling tinkle somewhere near; a sound which set the boy creeping, to find it low down between some rocks slippery with green moss which grew all about a tiny pool, into which after lying flat upon his chest he plunged his lips, and drank again and again to quench his thirst.