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Chapter 42 - The Rifle Rangers by Mayne Reid

A New and Terrible Enemy

It was daylight when I awoke—broad daylight. My companions, all but Clayley, were already astir, and had kindled a fire with a species of wood known to Raoul, that produced hardly any smoke. They were preparing breakfast. On a limb close by hung the hideous, human-like carcass of an iguana, still writhing. Raoul was whetting a knife to skin it, while Lincoln was at some distance, carefully reloading his rifle. The Irishman lay upon the grass, peeling bananas and roasting them over the fire.

The iguana was soon skinned and broiled, and we all of us commenced eating with good appetites.

“Be Saint Pathrick!” said Chane, “this bates frog-atin’ all hollow. It’s little meself dhramed, on the Owld Sod, hearin’ of thim niggers in furrin parts, that I’d be turning kannybawl meself some day!”

“Don’t you like it, Murtagh?” asked Raoul jocosely.

“Och! indade, yes; it’s betther than an empty brid-basket; but if yez could only taste a small thrifle ov a Wicklow ham this mornin’, an’ a smilin’ pratie, instid of this brown soap, yez—.”

“Hisht!” said Lincoln, starting suddenly, and holding the bite half-way to his mouth.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I’ll tell yer in a minit, Cap’n.”

The hunter waved his hand to enjoin silence, and, striding to the edge of the glade, fell flat to the ground. We knew he was listening, and waited for the result. We had not long to wait, for he had scarce brought his ear in contact with the earth when he sprang suddenly up again, exclaiming:

“Houn’s trailin’ us!”

He wore a despairing look unusual to the bold character of his features. This, with the appalling statement, acted on us like a galvanic shock, and by one impulse we leaped from the fire and threw ourselves flat upon the grass.

Not a word was spoken as we strained our ears to listen.

At first we could distinguish a low moaning sound, like the hum of a wild bee; it seemed to come out of the earth. After a little it grew louder and sharper; then it ended in a yelp and ceased altogether. After a short interval it began afresh, this time still clearer; then came the yelp, loud, sharp, and vengeful. There was no mistaking that sound. It was the bark of the Spanish bloodhound.

We sprang up simultaneously, looking around for weapons, and then staring at each other with an expression of despair.

The rifle and two case-knives were all the weapons we had.

“What’s to be done!” cried one, and all eyes were turned upon Lincoln.

The hunter stood motionless, clutching his rifle and looking to the ground.

“How fur’s the crik, Rowl?” he asked after a pause.

“Not two hundred yards; this way it lies.”

“I kin see no other chance, Cap’n, than ter take the water: we may bamfoozle the houn’s a bit, if thar’s good wadin’.”

“Nor I.” I had thought of the same plan.

“If we hed hed bowies, we mouter fit the dogs whar we air, but yer see we hain’t; an’ I kin tell by thar growl thar ain’t less nor a dozen on ’em.”

“It’s no use to remain here; lead us to the creek, Raoul;” and, following the Frenchman, we dashed recklessly through the thicket.

On reaching the stream we plunged in. It was one of those mountain torrents common in Mexico—spots of still water alternating with cascades, that dash, and foam over shapeless masses of amygdaloidal basalt. We waded through the first pool, and then, clambering among the rocks, entered a second. This was a good stretch, a hundred yards or more of still, crystal water, in which we were waist-deep.

We took the bank at the lower, and on the same side, and, striking back into the timber, kept on parallel to the course of the stream. We did not go far away from the water, lest we might be pushed again to repeat the ruse.

All this time the yelping of the bloodhounds had been ringing in our ears. Suddenly it ceased.

“They have reached the water,” said Clayley.

“No,” rejoined Lincoln, stopping a moment to listen: “they’re chawin’ the bones of the varmint.”

“There again!” cried one, as their deep voices rang down the glen in the chorus of the whole pack. The next minute the dogs were mute a second time, speaking at intervals in a fierce growl that told us they were at fault.

Beyond an occasional bark we heard nothing of the bloodhounds until we had gained at least two miles down the stream. We began to think we had baffled them in earnest, when Lincoln, who had kept in the rear, was seen to throw himself flat upon the grass. We all stopped, looking at him with breathless anxiety. It was but a minute. Rising up with a reckless air, he struck his rifle fiercely upon the ground, exclaiming:

“They’re arter us agin!”

By one impulse we all rushed back to the creek, and, scrambling over the rocks, plunged into the water and commenced wading down.

A sudden exclamation burst from Raoul in the advance. We soon learnt the cause, and to our dismay. We had struck the water at a point where the stream cañoned.

On each side rose a frowning precipice, straight as a wall. Between these the black torrent rushed through a channel only a few feet in width so swiftly that, had we attempted to descend by swimming, we should have been dashed to death against the rocks below.

To reach the stream farther down it would be necessary to make a circuit of miles; and the hounds would be on our heels before we could gain three hundred yards.

We looked at each other and at Lincoln, all panting and pale.

“Stumped at last!” cried the hunter, gritting his teeth with fury.

“No!” I shouted, a thought at that moment flashing upon me. “Follow me, comrades! We’ll fight the bloodhounds upon the cliff.”

I pointed upward. A yell from Lincoln announced his approval.

“Hooray!” he cried, leaping on the bank; “that idee’s jest like yer, Cap. Hooray! Now, boys, for the bluff!”

Next moment we were straining up the gorge that led to the precipice; and the next we had reached the highest point, where the cliff, by a bold projection, butted over the stream. There was a level platform covered with tufted grass, and upon this we took our stand.

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