Chapter 19 - The Rifle Rangers by Mayne Reid

A Herculean Feat.

The whole skirmish did not occupy two minutes. It was like most charges of Mexican cavalry—a dash, a wild yelling, half a dozen empty saddles, and a hasty retreat.

The guerilleros had swerved off as soon as they perceived that we had gained a safe position, and the bullets of our reloaded pieces began to whistle around their ears. Dubrosc alone, in his impetuosity, galloped close up to the inclosure; and it was only on perceiving himself alone, and the folly of exposing himself thus fruitlessly, that he wheeled round and followed the Mexicans. The latter were now out upon the prairie, beyond the range of small-arms, grouped around their wounded comrades, or galloping to and fro, with yells of disappointed vengeance.

I entered the corral, where most of my men had sheltered themselves behind the stockades. Little Jack sat upon Twidget, reloading his rifle, and trying to appear insensible to the flattering encomiums that hailed him from all sides. A compliment from Lincoln, however, was too much for Jack, and a proud smile was seen upon the face of the boy.

“Thank you, Jack,” said I, as I passed him; “I see you can use a rifle to some purpose.”

Jack held down his head, without saying a word, and appeared to be very busy about the lock of his piece.

In the skirmish, Lincoln had received the scratch of a lance, at which he was chafing in his own peculiar way, and vowing revenge upon the giver. It might be said that he had taken this, as he had driven his short bayonet through his antagonist’s arm, and sent him off with this member hanging by his side. But the hunter was not content; and, as he retired sullenly into the inclosure, he turned round, and, shaking his fist at the Mexican, muttered savagely:

“Yer darned skunk! I’ll know yer agin. See if I don’t git yer yit!”

Gravenitz, a Prussian soldier, had also been too near a lance, and several others had received slight wounds. The German was the only one killed. He was still lying out on the plain, where he had fallen, the long shaft of the lance standing up out of his skull. Not ten feet distant lay the corpse, of his slayer, glistening in its gaudy and picturesque attire.

The other guerillero, as he fell, had noosed one of his legs in the lazo that hung from the horn of his saddle, and was now dragged over the prairie after his wild and snorting mustang. As the animal swerved, at every jerk his limber body bounded to the distance of twenty feet, where it would lie motionless until slung into the air by a fresh pluck on the lazo.

As we were watching this horrid spectacle, several of the guerilleros galloped after, while half a dozen others were observed spurring their steeds towards the rear of the corral. On looking in this direction we perceived a huge red horse, with an empty saddle, scouring at full speed across the prairie. A single glance showed us that this horse was Hercules.

“Good heavens! the Major!”

“Safe somewhere,” replied Clayley; “but where the deuce can he be? He is not hors de combat on the plain, or one could see him even ten miles off. Ha! ha! ha!—look yonder!”

Clayley, yelling with laughter, pointed to the corner of the rancho.

Though after a scene so tragic, I could hardly refrain from joining Clayley in his boisterous mirth. Hanging by the belt of his sabre upon a high picket was the major, kicking and struggling with all his might. The waist-strap, tightly drawn by the bulky weight of the wearer, separated his body into two vast rotundities, while his face was distorted and purple with the agony of suspense and suspension. He was loudly bellowing for help, and several soldiers were running towards him; but, from the manner in which he jerked his body up, and screwed his neck, so as to enable him to look over the stockade, it was evident that the principal cause of his uneasiness lay on the “other side of the fence.”

The truth was, the major, on the first appearance of the enemy, had galloped towards the rear of the corral, and, finding no entrance, had thrown himself from the back of Hercules upon the stockade, intending to climb over; but, having caught a glance of some guerilleros, he had suddenly let go his bridle, and attempted to precipitate himself into the corral.

His waist-belt, catching upon a sharp picket, held him suspended midway, still under the impression that the Mexicans were close upon his rear. He was soon unhooked, and now waddled across the corral, uttering a thick and continuous volley of his choicest oaths.

Our eyes were now directed towards Hercules. The horsemen had closed upon him within fifty yards, and were winding their long lazos in the air. The major, to all appearance, had lost his horse.

After galloping to the edge of the woods, Hercules suddenly halted, and threw up the trailing-bridle with a loud neigh. His pursuers, coming up, flung out their lazos. Two of these, settling over his head, noosed him around the neck. The huge brute, as if aware of the necessity of a desperate effort to free himself, dropped his nose to the ground, and stretched himself out in full gallop.

The lariats, one by one tightening over his bony chest, snapped like threads, almost jerking the mustangs from their feet. The long fragments sailed out like streamers as he careered across the prairie, far ahead of his yelling pursuers.

He now made directly for the corral. Several of the soldiers ran towards the stockade, in order to seize the bridle when he should come up; but Hercules, spying his old comrade—the horse of the “Doctor”—within the inclosure, first neighed loudly, and then, throwing all his nerve into the effort, sprang high over the picket fence.

A cheer rose from the men, who had watched with interest his efforts to escape, and who now welcomed him as if he had been one of themselves.

“Two months’ pay for your horse, Major!” cried Clayley.

“Och, the bewtiful baste! He’s worth the full of his skin in goold! By my sowl! the capten ought to have ’im,” ejaculated Chane; and various other encomiums were uttered in honour of Hercules.

Meanwhile, his pursuers, not daring to approach the stockade, drew off towards their comrades with gestures of disappointment and chagrin.