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Chapter 45 - The Rifle Rangers by Mayne Reid

A Coup d’Éclair

Many an uneasy look was thrown over our shoulders as we struggled down that slope. Our strength was urged to its utmost; and this was not much, for we had all lost blood in our encounter with the sleuth-hounds, and felt weak and faint.

We were baffled, too, by a storm—a fierce, tropical storm. The rain, thick and heavy, plashed in our faces, and made the ground slippery under our feet. The lightning flashed in our eyes, and the electric sulphur shortened our breathing. Still we coughed and panted and staggered onward, nerved by the knowledge that death was behind us.

I shall never forget that fearful race. I thought it would never end. I can only liken it to one of those dreams in which we are always making endeavours to escape from some horrible monster, and are as often hindered by a strange and mysterious helplessness. I remember it now as then. I have often repeated that flight in my sleep, and always awoke with a feeling of shuddering horror.

We had got within five hundred yards of the timber. Five hundred yards is not much to a fresh runner; but to us, toiling along at a trot that much more resembled a walk, it seemed an infinity. A small prairie, with a stream beyond, separated us from the edge of the woods—a smooth sward without a single tree. We had entered upon it—Raoul, who was light of foot, being in the advance, while Lincoln from choice hung in the rear.

An exclamation from the hunter caused us to look back. We were too much fatigued and worn out to be frightened at the sight. Along the crest of the hill a hundred horsemen were dashing after us in full gallop, and the next moment their vengeful screams were ringing in our ears.

“Now, do yer best, boys!” cried Lincoln, “an’ I’ll stop the cavortin’ of that ’ere foremost feller afore he gits much furrer.”

We trailed our bodies on, but we could hear the guerilleros fast closing upon us. The bullets from their escopettes whistled in our ears, and cut the grass around our feet. I saw Raoul, who had reached the timber, turn suddenly round and walk back. He had resolved to share our fate.

“Save yourself, Raoul!” I called with my weak voice, but he could not have heard me above the din.

I saw him still walking towards us. I heard the screams behind; I heard the shots, and the whizzing of bullets, and the fierce shouts.

I heard the clatter of hoofs and the rasping of sabres as they leaped out of their iron sheaths; and among these I heard the crack of Lincoln’s rifle, and the wild yell of the hunter. Then a peal of thunder drowned all other sounds: the heavens one moment seemed on fire, then black—black. I felt the stifling smell of sulphur—a hot flash—a quick stroke from some invisible hand—and I sank senseless to the earth!

Something cool in my throat and over my face brought back the consciousness that I lived. It was water.

I opened my eyes, but it was some moments before I could see that Raoul was bending over me, and laving my temples with water from his boot. I muttered some half-coherent inquiries.

“It was a coup d’éclair, Captain,” said Raoul.

Good heavens! We had been struck by lightning! Raoul, being in the advance, had escaped.

The Frenchman soon left me and went to Clayley, who, with Chane and the hunter, lay close by—all three, as I thought, dead. They were pale as corpses, with here and there a spot of purple, or a livid line traced over their skins, while their lips presented the whitish, bloodless hue of death.

“Are they dead?” I asked feebly.

“I think not—we shall see;” and the Frenchman poured some water into Clayley’s mouth.

The latter sighed heavily, and appeared to revive.

Raoul passed on to the hunter, who, as soon as he felt the water, started to his feet, and, clutching his comrade fiercely by the throat, exclaimed:

“Yur cussed catamount! yer wud hang me, wud yur?”

Seeing who it was, he stopped suddenly, and looked round with an air of extreme bewilderment. His eye now fell upon the rifle, and, all at once seeming to recollect himself, he staggered towards it and picked it up. Then, as if by instinct, he passed his hand into his pouch and coolly commenced loading.

While Raoul was busy with Clayley and the Irishman, I had risen to my feet and looked back over the prairie. The rain was falling in torrents, and the lightning still flashed at intervals. At the distance of fifty paces a black mass was lying upon the ground motionless—a mass of men and horses, mingled together as they had fallen in their tracks. Here and there a single horse and his rider lay prostrate together. Beyond these, twenty or thirty horsemen were galloping in circles over the plain, and vainly endeavouring to head their frightened steeds towards the point where we were. These, like Raoul, had escaped the stroke.

“Come!” cried the Frenchman, who had now resuscitated Clayley and Chane; “we have not a moment to lose. The mustangs will get over their fright, and these fellows will be down upon us.”

His advice was instantly followed, and before the guerilleros could manage their scared horses we had entered the thicket, and were crawling along under the wet leaves.

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