Chapter 18 - The Rifle Rangers by Mayne Reid

A Brush with the Guerilleros.

“Why, what was the matter, Major?” inquired I, as the major rode up blowing like a porpoise.

“Matter!” replied he, with one of his direst imprecations; “matter, indeed! You wouldn’t have me ride plump into their works, would you?”

“Works!” echoed I, in some surprise; “what do you mean by that, Major?”

“I mean works—that’s all. There’s a stockade ten feet high, as full as it can stick of them.”

“Full of what?”

“Full of the enemy—full of rancheros. I saw their ugly copper faces—a dozen of them at least—looking at me over the pickets; and, sure as heaven, if I had gone ten paces farther they would have riddled me like a target.”

“But, Major, they were only peaceable rancheros—cow-herds—nothing more.”

“Cow-herds! I tell you, Captain, that those two that galloped off had a sword apiece strapped to their saddles. I saw them when I got near: they were decoys to bring us up to that stockade—I’ll bet my life upon it!”

“Well, Major,” rejoined I, “they’re far enough from the stockade now; and the best we can do in their absence will be to examine it, and see what chances it may offer to corral these mules, for, unless they can be driven into it, we shall have to return to camp empty-handed.”

Saying this, I moved forward with the men, the major keeping in the rear.

We soon reached the formidable stockade, which proved to be nothing more than a regular corral, such as are found on the great haciendas de ganados (cattle farms) of Spanish America. In one corner was a house, constructed of upright poles, with a thatch of palm-leaves. This contained the lazos, alparejas, saddles, etcetera, of the vaqueros; and in the door of this house stood a decrepit old zambo, the only human thing about the place. The zambo’s woolly head over the pickets had reflected itself a dozen times on the major’s terrified imagination.

After examining the corral, I found it excellent for our purpose, provided we could only succeed in driving the mules into it; and, throwing open the bars, we proceeded to make the attempt. The mules were browsing quietly at the distance of a quarter of a mile from the corral.

Marching past the drove, I deployed the company in the form of a semicircle, forming a complete cordon round the animals; then, closing in upon them slowly, the soldiers commenced driving them towards the pen.

We were somewhat awkward at this new duty; but by means of a shower of small rocks, pieces of bois de vache, and an occasional “heigh, heigh!” the mules were soon in motion and in the required direction.

The major, with Doc and little Jack, being the mounted men of the party, did great service, especially Jack, who was highly delighted with this kind of thing, and kept Twidget in a constant gallop from right to left.

As the mulado neared the gates of the inclosure, the two extremes of the semi-circumference gradually approached each other, closing in toward the corral.

The mules were already within fifty paces of the entrance, the soldiers coming up about two hundred yards in the rear, when a noise like the tramping of many hoofs arrested our attention. The quick, sharp note of a cavalry bugle rang out across the plain, followed by a wild yell, as though a band of Indian warriors were sweeping down upon the foe.

In an instant every eye was turned, and we beheld with consternation a cloud of horsemen springing out from the woods, and dashing along in the headlong velocity of a charge.

It required but a single glance to satisfy me that they were guerilleros. Their picturesque attire, their peculiar arms, and the parti-coloured bannerets upon their lances were not to be mistaken.

We stood for a moment as if thunderstruck; a sharp cry rose along the deployed line.

I signalled to the bugler, who gave the command, “Rally upon the centre!”

As if by one impulse, the whole line closed in with a run upon the gates of the inclosure. The mules, impelled by the sudden rush, dashed forward pell-mell, blocking up the entrance.

On came the guerilleros, with streaming pennons and lances couched, shouting their wild cries:

“Andela! andela! Mueran los Yankees!” (Forward! forward! Death to the Yankees!)

The foremost of the soldiers were already upon the heels of the crowded mules, pricking them with bayonets. The animals began to kick and plunge in the most furious manner, causing a new danger in front.

“Face about—fire!” I commanded at this moment.

An irregular but well-directed volley emptied half a dozen saddles, and for a moment staggered the charging line; but, before my men could reload, the guerilleros had leaped clear over their fallen comrades, and were swooping down with cries of vengeance. A dozen of their bravest men were already within shot-range, firing their escopettes and pistols as they came down.

Our position had now grown fearfully critical. The mules still blocked up the entrance, preventing the soldiers from taking shelter behind the stockade; and before we could reload, the rearmost would be at the mercy of the enemy’s lances.

Seizing the major’s servant by the arm, I dragged him from his horse, and, leaping into the saddle, flung myself upon the rear. Half a dozen of my bravest men, among whom were Lincoln, Chane, and the Frenchman Raoul, rallied around the horse, determined to receive the cavalry charge on the short bayonets of their rifles. Their pieces were all empty!

At this moment my eye rested on one of the soldiers, a brave but slow-footed German, who was still twenty paces in the rear of his comrades, making every effort to come up. Two of the guerilleros were rushing upon him with couched lances. I galloped out to his rescue; but before I could reach him the lance of the foremost Mexican crashed through the soldier’s skull, shivering it like a shell. The barb and bloody pennon came out on the opposite side. The man was lifted from the ground, and carried several paces upon the shaft of the lance.

The guerillero dropped his entangled weapon; but before he could draw any other, the sword of Victoria was through his heart.

His comrade turned upon me with a cry of vengeance. I had not yet disengaged my weapon to ward off the thrust. The lance’s point was within three feet of my breast, when a sharp crack was heard from behind; the lancer threw out his arms with a spasmodic jerk; his long spear was whirled into the air, and he fell back in his saddle, dead.

“Well done, Jack! fire and scissors! who showed yer that trick? whooray! whoop!” and I heard the voice of Lincoln, in a sort of Indian yell, rising high above the din.

At this moment a guerillo, mounted upon a powerful black mustang, came galloping down. This man, unlike most of his comrades, was armed with the sabre, which he evidently wielded with great dexterity. He came dashing on, his white teeth set in a fierce smile.

“Ha! Monsieur le Capitaine,” shouted he, as he came near, “still alive? I thought I had finished you on Lobos; not too late yet!”

I recognised the deserter, Dubrosc!

“Villain!” I ejaculated, too full of rage to utter another word.

We met at full speedy but with my unmanageable horse I could only ward off his blow as he swept past me. We wheeled again, and galloped towards each other—both of us impelled by hatred; but my horse again shied, frightened by the gleaming sabre of my antagonist. Before I could rein him round, he had brought me close to the pickets of the corral; and on turning to meet the deserter, I found that we were separated by a band of dark objects.

It was a detachment of mules that had backed from the gates of the corral and were escaping to the open plain. We reined up, eyeing each other with impatient vengeance; but the bullets of my men began to whistle from the pickets; and Dubrosc, with a threatening gesture, wheeled his horse and galloped off to his comrades. They had retired beyond range, and were halted in groups upon the prairie, chafing with disappointment and rage.