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Chapter 22 - The Rifle Rangers by Mayne Reid

The Rescue

“Rough handlin’, Cap’n. Yer must excuse haste.”

It was the voice of Lincoln.

“Ha! in the timber? Safe, then!” ejaculated I in return.

“Two or three wounded—not bad neither. Chane has got a stab in the hip—he gin the feller goss for it. Let me louze the darned thing off o’ your neck. It kum mighty near chokin’ yer, Cap’n.”

Bob proceeded to unwind the noose end of a lazo that, with some six feet of a raw hide thong, was still tightly fastened around my neck.

“But who cut the rope?” demanded I.

“I did, with this hyur toothpick. Yer see, Cap’n, it warn’t yer time to be hung just yet.”

I could not help smiling as I thanked the hunter for my safety.

“But where are the guerilleros?” asked I, looking around, my brain still somewhat confused.

“Yander they are, keepin’ safe out o’ range o’ this long gun. Just listen to ’em!—what a hillerballoo!”

The Mexican horsemen were galloping out on the prairie, their arms glistening under the clear moonlight.

“Take to the trees, men!” cried I, seeing that the enemy had again unlimbered, and were preparing to discharge their howitzer.

In a moment the iron shower came whizzing through the branches without doing any injury, as each of the men had covered his body with a tree. Several of the mules that stood tied and trembling were killed by the discharge.

Another shower hurtled through the bushes, with a similar effect.

I was thinking of retreating farther into the timber, and was walking back to reconnoitre the ground, when my eye fell upon an object that arrested my attention. It was the body of a very large man lying flat upon his face, his head buried among the roots of a good-sized tree. The arms were stiffly pressed against his side, and his legs projected at full stretch, exhibiting an appearance of motionless rigidity, as though a well-dressed corpse had been rolled over on its face. I at once recognised it as the body of the major, whom I supposed to have fallen dead where he lay.

“Good heavens! Clayley, look here!” cried I; “poor Blossom’s killed!”

“No, I’ll be hanged if I am!” growled the latter, screwing his neck round like a lizard, and looking up without changing the attitude of his body. Clayley was convulsed with laughter. The major sheathed his head again, as he knew that another shot from the howitzer might soon be expected.

“Major,” cried Clayley, “that right shoulder of yours projects over at least six inches.”

“I know it,” answered the major, in a frightened voice. “Curse the tree!—it’s hardly big enough to cover a squirrel;” and he squatted closer to the earth, pressing his arms tighter against his sides. His whole attitude was so ludicrous that Clayley burst into a second yell of laughter. At this moment a wild shout was heard from the guerilleros.

“What next?” cried I, running toward the front, and looking out upon the prairie.

“Them wild-cats are gwine to cla’r out, Cap’n,” said Lincoln, meeting me. “I kin see them hitchin’ up.”

“It is as you say! What can be the reason?”

A strange commotion was visible in the groups of horsemen. Scouts were galloping across the plain to a point of the woods about half a mile distant, and I could see the artillerists fastening their mules to the howitzer-carriage. Suddenly a bugle rang out, sounding the “Recall”, and the guerilleros, spurring their horses, galloped off towards Medellin.

A loud cheer, such as was never uttered by Mexican throats, came from the opposite edge of the prairie; and looking in that direction I beheld a long line of dark forms debouching from the woods at a gallop. Their sparkling blades, as they issued from the dark forest, glistened like a cordon of fireflies, and I recognised the heavy footfall of the American horse. A cheer from my men attracted their attention; and the leader of the dragoons, seeing that the guerilleros had got far out of reach, wheeled his column to the right and came galloping down.

“Is that Colonel Rawley?” inquired I, recognising a dragoon officer.

“Why, bless my soul!” exclaimed he, “how did you get out? We heard you were jugged. All alive yet?”

“We have lost two,” I replied.

“Pah! that’s nothing. I came out expecting to bury the whole kit of you. Here’s Clayley, too. Clayley, your friend Twing’s with us; you’ll find him in the rear.”

“Ha! Clayley, old boy!” cried Twing, coming up; “no bones broken? all right? Take a pull; do you good—don’t drink it all, though—leave a thimbleful for Haller there. How do you like that?”

“Delicious, by Jove!” ejaculated Clayey, tugging away at the major’s flask.

“Come, Captain, try it.”

“Thank you,” I replied, eagerly grasping the welcome flask.

“But where is old Bios? killed, wounded, or missing?”

“I believe the major is not far off, and still uninjured.”

I despatched a man for the major, who presently came up, blowing and swearing like a Flanders trooper.

“Hilloa, Bios!” shouted Twing, grasping him by the hand.

“Why, bless me, Twing, I’m glad to see you!” answered Blossom, throwing his arms around the diminutive major. “But where on earth is your pewter?” for during the embrace he had been groping all over Twing’s body for the flask.

“Here, Cudjo! That flask, boy!”

“Faith, Twing, I’m near choked; we’ve been fighting all day—a devil of a fight! I chased a whole squad of the cursed scoundrels on Hercules, and came within a squirrel’s jump of riding right into their nest. We’ve killed dozens; but Haller will tell you all. He’s a good fellow, that Haller; but he’s too rash—rash as blazes! Hilloa, Hercules! glad to see you again, old fellow; you had a sharp brush for it.”

“Remember your promise, Major,” said I, as the major stood patting Hercules upon the shoulder.

“I’ll do better, Captain. I’ll give you a choice between Hercules and a splendid black I have. Faith! it’s hard to part with you, old Herky, but I know the captain will like the black better: he’s the handsomest horse in the whole army; bought him from poor Ridgely, who was killed at Monterey.”

This speech of the major was delivered partly in soliloquy, partly in an apostrophe to Hercules, and partly to myself.

“Very well, Major,” I replied. “I’ll take the black. Mr Clayley, mount the men on their mules: you will take command of the company, and proceed with Colonel Rawley to camp. I shall go myself for the Don.”

The last was said in a whisper to Clayley.

“We may not get in before noon to-morrow. Say nothing of my absence to anyone. I shall make my report at noon tomorrow.”

“And, Captain—” said Clayley.

“Well, Clayley?”

“You will carry back my—.”

“What? To which friend?”

“Of course, to Mary of the Light.”

“Oh, certainly!”

“In your best Spanish.”

“Rest assured,” said I, smiling at the earnestness of my friend.

I was about moving from the spot, when the thought occurred to me to send the company to camp under command of Oakes, and take Clayley along with me.

“Clayley, by the way,” said I, calling the lieutenant back, “I don’t see why you may not carry your compliments in person. Oakes can take the men back. I shall borrow half a dozen dragoons from Rawley.”

“With all my heart!” replied Clayley.

“Come, then; get a horse, and let us be off.”

Taking Lincoln and Raoul, with half a dozen of Rawley’s dragoons, I bade my friends good-night.

These started for camp by the road of Mata Cordera, while I with my little party brushed for some distance round the border of the prairie, and then climbed the hill, over which lay the path to the house of the Spaniard.

As I reached the top of the ridge I turned to look upon the scene of our late skirmish.

The cold, round moon, looking down upon the prairie of La Virgen, saw none of the victims of the fight.

The guerilleros in their retreat had carried off their dead and wounded comrades, and the Americans slept underground in the lone corral: but I could not help fancying that gaunt wolves were skulking round the inclosure, and that the claws of the coyote were already tearing up the red earth that had been hurriedly heaped over their graves.

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