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Chapter 44 - The Rifle Rangers by Mayne Reid

An Indian Ruse

A wild shout now drew our attention, and, looking up the creek, we saw our pursuers just debouching from the woods. They were all mounted, and pressing their mustangs down to the bank, where they halted with a strange cry.

“What is that, Raoul? Can you tell the meaning of that cry?”

“They are disappointed, Captain. They must dismount and foot it like ourselves; there is no crossing for horses.”

“Good! Oh, if we had but a rifle each! This pass—.” I looked down the gorge. We could have defended it against the whole party, but we were unarmed.

The guerilleros now dismounted, tying their horses to the trees and preparing to cross over. One, who seemed to be their leader, judging from his brilliant dress and plumes, had already advanced into the stream, and stood upon a projecting rock with his sword drawn. He was not more than three hundred yards from the position we occupied on the bluff.

“Do you think you can reach him?” I said to Lincoln, who had reloaded his gun, and stood eyeing the Mexican, apparently calculating the distance.

“I’m feerd, Cap’n, he’s too fur. I’d guv a half-year’s sodger-pay for a crack out o’ the major’s Dutch gun. We can lose nothin’ in tryin’. Murter, will yer stan’ afore me? Thar ain’t no kiver, an’ the feller’s watchin’. He’ll dodge like a duck if he sees me takin’ sight on ’im.”

Chane threw his large body in front, and Lincoln, cautiously slipping his rifle over his comrade’s shoulder, sighted the Mexican.

The latter had noticed the manoeuvre, and, perceiving the danger he had thrust himself into, was about turning to leap down from the rock when the rifle cracked—his plumed hat flew off, and throwing out his arms, he fell with a dead plunge upon the water! The next moment his body was sucked into the current, and, followed by his hat and plumes, was borne down the cañon with the velocity of lightning.

Several of his comrades uttered a cry of terror; and those who had followed him out into the open channel ran back towards the bank, and screened themselves behind the rocks. A voice, louder than the rest, was heard exclaiming:

“Carajo! guardaos!—esta el rifle del diablo!” (Look out! it is the devil’s rifle!)

It was doubtless the comrade of José, who had been in the skirmish of La Virgen, and had felt the bullet of the zündnadel.

The guerilleros, awed by the death of their leader—for it was Yañez who had fallen—crouched behind the rocks. Even those who had remained with the horses, six hundred yards off, sheltered themselves behind trees and projections of the bank. The party nearest us kept loading and firing their escopettes. Their bullets flattened upon the face of the cliff or whistled over our heads. Clayley, Chane, Raoul, and myself, being unarmed, had thrown ourselves behind the scarp to avoid catching a stray shot. Not so Lincoln, who stood boldly out on the highest point of the bluff, as if disdaining to dodge their bullets.

I never saw a man so completely soaring above the fear of death. There was a sublimity about him that I remember being struck with at the time; and I remember, too, feeling the inferiority of my own courage. It was a stupendous picture, as he stood like a colossus clutching his deadly weapon, and looking over his long brown beard at the skulking and cowardly foe. He stood without a motion—without even winking—although the leaden hail hurtled past his head, and cut the grass at his feet with that peculiar “zip-zip” so well remembered by the soldier who has passed the ordeal of a battle.

There was something in it awfully grand—awful even to us; no wonder that it awed our enemies.

I was about to call upon Lincoln to fall back and shelter himself, when I saw him throw up his rifle to the level. The next instant he dropped the butt to the ground with a gesture of disappointment. A moment after, the manoeuvre was repeated with a similar result, and I could hear the hunter gritting his teeth.

“The cowardly skunks!” muttered he; “they keep a-gwine like a bull’s tail in fly-time.”

In fact, every time Lincoln brought his piece to a level, the guerilleros ducked, until not a head could be seen.

“They ain’t as good as thar own dogs,” continued the hunter, turning away from the cliff. “If we hed a lot of loose rocks, Cap’n, we mout keep them down thar till doomsday.”

A movement was now visible among the guerilleros. About one-half of the party were seen to mount their horses and gallop off up the creek.

“They’re gone round by the ford,” said Raoul: “it’s not over a mile and a half. They can cross with their horses there and will be on us in half an hour.”

What was to be done? There was no timber to hide us now—no chaparral. The country behind the cliff was a sloping table, with here and there a stunted palm-tree or a bunch of “Spanish bayonet” (Yucca angustifolia). This would be no shelter, for from the point we occupied, the most elevated on the ridge, we could have descried an object of human size five miles off. At that distance from us the woods began; but could we reach them before our pursuers would overtake us?

Had the guerilleros all gone off by the ford we should have returned to the creek bottom, but a party remained below, and we were cut off from our former hiding-place. We must therefore strike for the woods.

But it was necessary first to decoy the party below, otherwise they would be after us before the others, and experience had taught us that these Mexicans could run like hares.

This was accomplished by an old Indian trick that both Lincoln and myself had practised before. It would not have “fooled” a Texan Ranger, but it succeeded handsomely with the guerilleros.

We first threw ourselves on the ground in such a position that only our heads could be seen by the enemy, who still kept blazing away from their escopettes. After a short while our faces gradually sank behind the crest of the ridge, until nothing but our forage-caps appeared above the sward. We lay thus for some moments, showing a face or two at intervals. Our time was precious, and we could not perform the pantomime to perfection; but we were not dealing with Comanches, and for “Don Diego” it was sufficiently artistical.

Presently we slipped our heads one by one out of their covers, leaving the five caps upon the grass inclining to each other in the most natural positions. We then stole back lizard-fashion, and, after sprawling a hundred yards or so, rose to our feet and ran like scared dogs. We could tell that we had duped the party below, as we heard them firing away at our empty caps long after we had left the scene of our late adventure.

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