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Chapter 21 - The Rifle Rangers by Mayne Reid

A Short Fight at “Long Shot”

The escape of Raoul and Hercules produced an affect almost magical upon the enemy. Instead of the listless defensive attitude lately assumed, the guerilleros were now in motion like a nest of roused hornets, scouring over the plain, and yelling like a war-party of Indians.

They did not surround the corral, as I had anticipated they would. They had no fear that we should attempt to escape; but they knew that, instead of the three days in which they expected to kill us with thirst at their leisure, they had not three hours left to accomplish that object. Raoul would reach the camp in little more than an hour’s time, and either infantry or mounted men would be on them in two hours after.

Scouts were seen galloping off in the direction taken by Raoul, and others dashed into the woods on the opposite side of the prairie. All was hurry and scurry.

Along with Clayley I had climbed upon the roof of the rancho, to watch the motions of the enemy, and to find out, if possible, his intentions. We stood for some time without speaking, both of us gazing at the manoeuvres of the guerilleros. They were galloping to and fro over the prairie, excited by the escape of Raoul.

“Splendidly done!” exclaimed my companion, struck with their graceful horsemanship. “One of those fellows, Captain, as he sits, at this minute, would—”

“Ha! what—?” shouted he, suddenly turning and pointing towards the woods.

I looked in the direction indicated. A cloud of dust was visible at the débouchement of the Medellin road. It appeared to hang over a small body of troops upon the march. The sun was just setting, and, as the cloud lay towards the west, I could distinguish the sparkling of bright objects through its dun volume. The guerilleros had reined up their horses, and were eagerly gazing towards the same point.

Presently the dust was wafted aside, a dozen dark forms became visible, and in the midst a bright object flashed under the sun like a sheet of gold. At the same instant an insulting shout broke from the guerilleros, and a voice was heard exclaiming:

“Cenobio! Cenobio! Los canones!” (Cenobio! Cenobio! the cannon!)

Clayley turned towards me with an inquiring look.

“It is true, Clayley; by heavens, we’ll have it now!”

“What did they say?”

“Look for yourself—well?”

“A brass piece, as I live!—a six-pound carronade!”

“We are fighting the guerilla (Note 1) of Cenobio, a small army of itself. Neither stockade nor motte will avail us now.”

“What is to be done?” asked my companion.

“Nothing but die with arms in our hands. We will not die without a struggle, and the sooner we prepare for it the better.”

I leaped from the roof, and ordered the bugler to sound the assembly.

In a moment the clear notes rang out, and the soldiers formed before me in the corral.

“My brave comrades!” cried I, “they have got the advantage of us at last. They are bringing down a piece of artillery, and I fear these pickets will offer us but poor shelter. If we are driven out, let us strike for that island of timber; and, mark me—if we are broken, let every man fight his way as he best can, or die over a fallen enemy.”

A determined cheer followed this short harangue, and I continued:

“But let us first see how they use their piece. It is a small one, and will not destroy us all at once. Fling yourselves down as they fire. By lying flat on your faces you may not suffer so badly. Perhaps we can hold the corral until our friends reach us. At all events we shall try.”

Another cheer rang along the line.

“Great heaven, Captain! it’s terrible!” whispered the major.

“What is terrible?” I asked, feeling at the moment a contempt for this blaspheming coward.

“Oh! this—this business—such a fix to be—”

“Major! remember you are a soldier.”

“Yes; and I wish I had resigned, as I intended to do, before this cursed war commenced.”

“Never fear,” said I, tempted to smile at the candour of his cowardice; “you’ll drink wine at Hewlett’s in a month. Get behind this log—it’s the only point shot-proof in the whole stockade.”

“Do you think, Captain, it will stop a shot?”

“Ay—from a siege-gun. Look out, men, and be ready to obey orders!”

The six-pounder had now approached within five hundred yards of the stockade, and was leisurely being unlimbered in the midst of a group of the enemy’s artillerists.

At this moment the voice of the major arrested my attention.

“Great heaven, Captain! Why do you allow them to come so near?”

“How am I to prevent them?” I asked, with some surprise.

“Why, my rifle will reach farther than that. It might keep them off, I think.”

“Major, you are dreaming!” said I. “They are two hundred yards beyond range of our rifles. If they would only come within that, we should soon send them back for you.”

“But, Captain, mine will carry twice the distance.”

I looked at the major, under the belief that he had taken leave of his senses.

“It’s a zündnadel, I assure you, and will kill at eight hundred yards.”

“Is it possible?” cried I, starting; for I now recollected the curious-looking piece which I had ordered to be cut loose from the saddle of Hercules. “Why did you not tell me that before? Where is Major Blossom’s rifle?” I shouted, looking around.

“This hyur’s the major’s gun” answered Sergeant Lincoln. “But if it’s a rifle, I never seed sich. It looks more like a two-year old cannon.”

It was, as the major had declared, a Prussian needle-gun—then a new invention, but of which I had heard something.

“Is it loaded, Major?” I asked, taking the piece from Lincoln.

“It is.”

“Can you hit that man with the sponge?” said I, returning the piece to the hunter.

“If this hyur thing’ll carry fur enuf, I kin,” was the reply.

“It will kill at a thousand yards, point blank,” cried the major, with energy.

“Ha! are you sure of that, Major?” I asked.

“Certainly, Captain. I got it from the inventor. We tried it at Washington. It is loaded with a conical bullet. It bored a hole through an inch plank at that distance.”

“Well. Now, Sergeant, take sure aim; this may save us yet.”

Lincoln planted himself firmly on his feet, choosing a notch of the stockade that ranged exactly with his shoulder. He then carefully wiped the dust from the sights; and, placing the heavy barrel in the notch, laid his cheek slowly against the stock.

“Sergeant, the man with the shot!” I called out.

As I spoke, one of the artillerists was stooping to the muzzle of the six-pounder, holding in his hand a spherical case-shot. Lincoln pressed the trigger. The crack followed, and the artillerist threw out his arms, and doubled over on his head without giving a kick.

The shot that he had held rolled out upon the green-sward. A wild cry, expressive of extreme astonishment, broke from the guerilleros. At the same instant a cheer rang through the corral.

“Well done!” cried a dozen of voices at once.

In a moment the rifle was wiped and reloaded.

“This time, Sergeant, the fellow with the linstock.”

During the reloading of the rifle, the Mexicans around the six-pounder had somewhat recovered from their surprise, and had rammed home the cartridge. A tall artillerist stood, with linstock and fuse, near the breech, waiting for the order to fire.

Before he received that order the rifle again cracked; his arm new up with a sudden jerk, and the smoking rod, flying from his grasp, was projected to the distance of twenty feet.

The man himself spun round, and, staggering a pace or two, fell into the arms of his comrades.

“Cap’n, jest allow me ter take that ere skunk next time.”

“Which one, Sergeant?” I asked.

“Him thet’s on the black, makin’ such a dot-rotted muss.”

I recognised the horse and figure of Dubrosc.

“Certainly, by all means,” said I, with a strange feeling at my heart as I gave the order.

But before Lincoln could reload, one of the Mexicans, apparently an officer, had snatched up the burning fuse, and, running up, applied it to the touch.

“On your faces, men!”

The ball came crashing through the thin pickets of the corral, and, whizzing across the inclosure, struck one of the mules on the flank, tearing open its hip, causing it to kick furiously as it tumbled over the ground.

Its companions, stampeding, galloped for a moment through the pen; then, collecting in a corner, stood cowered up and quivering. A fierce yell announced the exultation of the guerilleros.

Dubrosc was sitting on his powerful mustang, facing the corral, and watching the effects of the shot.

“If he wur only ’ithin range ov my own rifle!” muttered Lincoln, as he glanced along the sights of the strange piece.

The crack soon followed—the black horse reared, staggered, and fell back on his rider.

“Ten strike, set ’em up!” exclaimed a soldier.

“Missed the skunk!” cried Lincoln, gritting his teeth as the horseman was seen to struggle from under the fallen animal.

Rising to his feet, Dubrosc sprang out to the front, and shook his fist in the air with a shout of defiance.

The guerilleros galloped back; and the artillerists, wheeling the six-pounder, dragged it after, and took up a new position about three hundred yards farther to the rear.

A second shot from the piece again tore through the pickets, striking one of our men, and killing him instantly.

“Aim at the artillerists, Sergeant. We have nothing to fear from the others.”

Lincoln fired again. The shot hit the ground in front of the enemy’s gun; but, glancing, it struck one of the cannoniers, apparently wounding him badly, as he was carried back by his comrades.

The Mexicans, terror-struck at this strange instrument of destruction, took up a new position, two hundred yards still farther back.

Their third shot ricocheted, striking the top of the strong plank behind which the major was screening himself, and only frightening the latter by the shock upon the timber.

Lincoln again fired.

This time his shot produced no visible effect, and a taunting cheer from the enemy told that they felt themselves beyond range.

Another shot was fired from the zündnadel, apparently with a similar result.

“It’s beyond her carry, Cap’n,” said Lincoln, bringing the butt of his piece to the ground, with an expression of reluctant conviction.

“Try one more shot. If it fail, we can reserve the other for closer work. Aim high!”

This resulted as the two preceding ones; and a voice from the guerilleros was heard exclaiming:

“Yankees bobos! mas adelante!” (A little farther, you Yankee fools!)

Another shot from the six-pounder cracked through the planks, knocking his piece from the hands of a soldier, and shivering the dry stock-wood into fifty fragments.

“Sergeant, give me the rifle,” said I. “They must be a thousand yards off; but, as they are as troublesome with that carronade as if they were only ten, I shall try one more shot.”

I fired, but the ball sank at least fifty paces in front of the enemy.

“We expect too much. It is not a twenty-four pounder. Major, I envy you two things—your rifle and your horse.”


“Of course.”

“Lord, Captain! you may do what you will with the rifle; and if ever we get out of the reach of these infernal devils, Hercules shall be—.”

At this moment a cheer came from the guerilleros, and a voice was heard shouting above the din:

“La metralla! la metralla!” (The howitzer!)

I leaped upon the roof, and looked out upon the plain. It was true. A howitzer-carriage, drawn by mules, was debouching from the woods, the animals dragging it along at a gallop.

It was evidently a piece of some size, large enough to tear the light picketing that screened us to atoms.

I turned towards my men with a look of despair. My eye at this moment rested on the drove of mules that stood crowded together in a corner of the pen. A sudden thought struck me. Might we not mount them and escape? There were more than enough to carry us all, and the rancho was filled with bridles and ropes. I instantly leaped from the roof, and gave orders to the men.

“Speedily, but without noise!” cried I, as the soldiers proceeded to fling bridles upon the necks of the animals.

In five minutes each man, with his rifle slung, stood by a mule, some of them having buckled on tapadas, to prevent the animals from kicking.

The major stood ready by his horse.

“Now, my brave fellows,” shouted I in a loud voice, “we must take it cavalry fashion—Mexican cavalry, I mean.” The men laughed. “Once in the woods, we shall retreat no farther. At the words ‘Mount and follow’, spring to your seats and follow Mr Clayley. I shall look to your rear—don’t stop to fire—hold on well. If anyone fall, let his nearest comrade take him up. Ha! anyone hurt there?” A shot had whistled through the ranks. “Only a scratch,” was the reply.

“All ready, then, are you? Now, Mr Clayley, you see the high timber—make direct for that. Down with the bars! ‘Mount and follow’!”

As I uttered the last words, the men leaped to their seats; and Clayley, riding the bell-mule, dashed out of the corral, followed by the whole train, some of them plunging and kicking, but all galloped forward at the sound of the bell upon their guide.

As the dark cavalcade rushed out upon the prairie, a wild cry from the guerilleros told that this was the first intimation they had had of the singular ruse. They sprang to their saddles with yells, and galloped in pursuit. The howitzer, that had been trailed upon the corral, was suddenly wheeled about and fired; but the shot, ill-directed in their haste, whistled harmlessly over our heads.

The guerilleros, on their swift steeds, soon lessened the distance between us.

With a dozen of the best men I hung in the rear, to give the foremost of the pursuers a volley, or pick up any soldier who might be tossed from his mule. One of these, at intervals, kicked as only a Mexican mule can; and when within five hundred yards of the timber, his rider, an Irishman, was flung upon the prairie.

The rearmost of our party stopped to take him up. He was seized by Chane, who mounted him in front of himself. The delay had nearly been fatal. The pursuers were already within a hundred yards, firing their pistols and escopettes without effect. A number of the men turned in their seats and blazed back. Others threw their rifles over their shoulders, and pulled trigger at random. I could perceive that two or three guerilleros dropped from their saddles. Their comrades, with shouts of vengeance, closed upon us nearer and nearer. The long lazos, far in advance, whistled around our heads.

I felt the slippery noose light upon my shoulders. I flung out my arms to throw it off, but with a sudden jerk it tightened around my neck. I clutched the hard thong, and pulled with all my might. It was in vain.

The animal I rode, freed from my manège, seemed to plunge under me, and gather up its back with a vicious determination to fling me. It succeeded; and I was launched in the air, and dashed to the earth with a stunning violence.

I felt myself dragged along the gravelly ground. I grasped the weeds, but they came away in my hands, torn up by the roots. There was a struggle above and around me. I could hear loud shouts and the firing of guns. I felt that I was being strangled.

A bright object glistened before my eyes. I felt myself seized by a strong, rough hand, and swung into the air and rudely shaken, as if in the grasp of some giant’s arm.

Something twitched me sharply over the cheeks. I heard the rustling of trees. Branches snapped and crackled, and leaves swept across my face. Then came the flash—flash, and the crack—crack—crack of a dozen rifles, and under their blazing light I was dashed a second time with violence to the earth.


Note 1. Troop of guerillas, who in Spanish are properly guerilleros.

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