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Chapter 20 - The Rifle Rangers by Mayne Reid

Running the Gauntlet

I began to reflect upon the real danger of our situation—corralled upon a naked prairie, ten miles from camp, with no prospect of escape. I knew that we could defend ourselves against twice the number of our cowardly adversaries; they would never dare to come within range of our rifles. But how to get out? how to cross the open plain? Fifty infantry against four times that number of mounted men—lancers at that—and not a bush to shelter the foot-soldier from the long spear and the iron hoof!

The nearest motte was half a mile off, and that another half a mile from the edge of the woods. Even could the motte be reached by a desperate run, it would be impossible to gain the woods, as the enemy would certainly cordon our new position, and thus completely cut us off. At present they had halted in a body about four hundred yards from the corral; and, feeling secure of having us in a trap, most of them had dismounted, and were running out their mustangs upon their lazos. It was plainly their determination to take us by siege.

To add to our desperate circumstances, we discovered that there was not a drop of water in the corral. The thirst that follows a fight had exhausted the scanty supply of our canteens, and the heat was excessive.

As I was running over in my mind the perils of our position, my eye rested upon Lincoln, who stood with his piece at a carry, his left hand crossed over his breast, in the attitude of a soldier waiting to receive orders.

“Well, Sergeant, what is it?” I inquired.

“Will yer allow me, Cap’n, ter take a couple o’ files, and fetch in the Dutchman? The men ’ud like ter put a sod upon him afore them thievin’ robbers kin git at him.”

“Certainly. But will you be safe? He’s at some distance from the stockade.”

“I don’t think them fellers ’ll kum down—they’ve had enuf o’ it just now. We’ll run out quick, and the boys kin kiver us with their fire.”

“Very well, then; set about it.”

Lincoln returned to the company and selected four of the most active of his men, with whom he proceeded towards the entrance. I ordered the soldiers to throw themselves on that side of the inclosure, and cover the party in case of an attack; but none was made. A movement was visible among the Mexicans, as they perceived Lincoln and his party rush out towards the body; but, seeing they would be too late to prevent them from carrying it off, they wisely kept beyond the reach of the American rifles.

The body of the German was brought into the inclosure and buried with due ceremony, although his comrades believed that before many hours it would be torn from its “warrior grave”, dragged forth to feed the coyoté and vulture, and his bones left to whiten upon the naked prairie. Which of us knew that it might not in a few hours be his own fate?

“Gentlemen,” said I to my brother officers, as we came together, “can you suggest any mode of escape?”

“Our only chance is to fight them where we stand. There are four to one,” replied Clayey.

“We have no other chance, Captain,” said Oakes, with a shake of the head.

“But it is not their intention to fight us. Their design is to starve us. See! they are picketing their horses, knowing they can easily overtake us if we attempt to leave the inclosure.”

“Cannot we move in a hollow square?”

“But what is a hollow square of fifty men? and against four times that number of cavalry, with lances and lazos? No, no; they would shiver it with a single charge. Our only hope is that we may be able to hold out until our absence from camp may bring a detachment to our relief.”

“And why not send for it?” inquired the major, who had scarcely been asked for his advice, but whose wits had been sharpened by the extremity of his danger. “Why not send for a couple of regiments?”

“How are we to send, Major?” asked Clayley, looking on the major’s proposition as ridiculous under the circumstances. “Have you a pigeon in your pocket?”

“Why?—how? There’s Hercules runs like a hare; stick one of your fellows in the saddle, and I’ll warrant him to camp in an hour.”

“You are right, Major,” said I, catching at the major’s proposal; “thank you for the thought. If he could only pass that point in the woods! I hate it, but it is our only chance.”

The last sentence I muttered to myself.

“Why do you hate it, Captain?” inquired the major, who had overheard me.

“You might not understand my reasons, Major.”

I was thinking upon the disgrace of being trapped as I was, and on my first scout, too.

“Who will volunteer to ride an express to camp?” I inquired, addressing the men.

Twenty of them leaped out simultaneously.

“Which of you remembers the course, that you could follow it in a gallop?” I asked.

The Frenchman, Raoul, stood forth, touching his cap.

“I know a shorter one, Captain, by Mata Cordera.”

“Ha! Raoul, you know the country. You are the man.”

I now remembered that this man joined us at Sacrificios, just after the landing of the expedition. He had been living in the country previous to our arrival, and was well acquainted with it.

“Are you a good horseman?” I inquired.

“I have seen five years of cavalry service.”

“True. Do you think you can pass them? They are nearly in your track.”

“As we entered the prairie, Captain; but my route will lie past this motte to the left.”

“That will give you several points. Do not stop a moment after you have mounted, or they will take the hint and intercept you.”

“With the red horse there will be no danger, Captain.”

“Leave your gun; take these pistols. Ha! you have a pair in the holsters. See if they are loaded. These spurs—so—cut loose that heavy piece from the saddle: the cloak, too; you must have nothing to encumber you. When you come near the camp, leave your horse in the chaparral. Give this to Colonel C.”

I wrote the following words on a scrap of paper:—

“Dear Colonel,

“Two hundred will be enough. Could they be stolen out after night? If so, all will be well—if it gets abroad...



As I handed the paper to Raoul, I whispered in his ear—

“To Colonel C’s own hand. Privately, Raoul—privately, do you hear?”

Colonel C. was my friend, and I knew that he would send a private party to my rescue.

“I understand, Captain,” was the answer of Raoul.

“Ready, then! now mount and be off.”

The Frenchman sprang nimbly to the saddle, and, driving his spurs into the flanks of his horse, shot out from the pen like a bolt of lightning.

For the first three hundred yards or so he galloped directly towards the guerilleros. These stood leaning upon their saddles, or lay stretched along the green-sward. Seeing a single horseman riding towards them, few of them moved, believing him to be some messenger sent to treat for our surrender.

Suddenly the Frenchman swerved from his direct course, and went sweeping around them in the curve of an ellipse.

They now perceived the ruse, and with a yell leaped into their saddles. Some fired their escopettes; others, unwinding their lazos, started in pursuit.

Raoul had by this time set Hercules’s head for the clump of timber which he had taken as his guide, and now kept on in a track almost rectilinear. Could he but reach the motte or clump in safety, he knew that there were straggling trees beyond, and these would secure him in some measure from the lazos of his pursuers.

We stood watching his progress with breathless silence. Our lives depended on his escape. A crowd of the guerilleros was between him and us; but we could still see the green jacket of the soldier, and the great red flanks of Hercules, as he bounded on towards the edge of the woods. Then we saw the lazos launched out, and spinning around Raoul’s head, and straggling shots were fired; and we fancied at one time that our comrade sprang up in the saddle, as if he had been hit. Then he appeared again, all safe, rounding the little islet of timber, and the next moment he was gone from our sight. There followed a while of suspense—of terrible suspense—for the motte hid from view both pursuers and pursued. Every eye was straining towards the point where the horseman had disappeared, when Lincoln, who had climbed to the top of the rancho, cried out:

“He’s safe, Cap’n! The dod-rotted skunks air kummin ’ithout him.”

It was true. A minute after, the horsemen appeared round the motte, riding slowly back, with that air and attitude that betoken disappointment.


Note. A motte is an eminence.

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