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Chapter 51 - The Rifle Rangers by Mayne Reid

A Bird’s-eye View of a Battle

It was still only an hour by sun as we rode off from the Eagle’s Cave. At some distance I turned in my saddle and looked back. It was a singular sight, those five hanging corpses, and one not easily forgotten. What an appalling picture it must have been to their own comrades, who doubtless watched the spectacle from some distant elevation!

Motionless they hung, in all the picturesque drapery of their strange attire—draggling—dead! The pines bent slightly over, the eagle screamed as he swept past, and high in the blue air a thousand bald vultures wheeled and circled, descending at every curve.

Before we had ridden out of sight the Eagle’s Cliff was black with zopilotes, hundreds clustering upon the pines, and whetting their fetid beaks over their prey, still warm. I could not help being struck with this strange transposition of victims.

We forded the stream below, and travelled for some hours in a westerly course over a half-naked ridge. At mid-day we reached an arroyo—a clear, cool stream that gurgled along under a thick grove of the palma redonda. Here we “nooned”, stretching our bodies along the green-sward.

At sundown we rode into the pueblito (hamlet) of Jacomulco, where we had determined to pass the night. Twing levied on the alcalde for forage for “man and beast”. The horses were picketed in the plaza, while the men bivouacked by their fires—strong mounted pickets having been thrown out on the roads or tracks that led to the village.

By daybreak we were again in our saddles, and, riding across another ridge, we struck the Plan River five miles above the bridge, and commenced riding down the stream. We were still far from the water, which roared and “soughed” in the bottom of a barranca, hundreds of feet below our path.

On crossing an eminence a sight suddenly burst upon us that caused us to leap in our saddles. Directly before us, and not a mile distant, rose a high round hill like a semi-globe, and from a small tower upon its top waved the standard of Mexico.

Long lines of uniformed men girdled the tower, formed in rank. Horsemen in bright dresses galloped up and down the hill. We could see the glitter of brazen helmets, and the glancing of a thousand bayonets. The burnished howitzer flashed in the sunbeams, and we could discern the cannoniers standing by their posts. Bugles were braying and drums rolling. So near were they that we could distinguish the call. They were sounding the “long roll!”

“Halt! Great Heaven!” cried Twing, jerking his horse upon its haunches; “we are riding into the enemy’s camp! Guide,” he added, turning fiercely to Raoul, and half-drawing his sword, “what’s this?”

“The hill, Major,” replied the soldier coolly, “is ‘El Telegrafo’. It is the Mexican head-quarters, I take it.”

“And, sir, what mean you? It is not a mile distant?”

“It is ten miles, Major.”

“Ten! Why, sir, I can trace the eagle upon that flag! It is not one mile, by Heaven!”

“By the eye, true; but by the road, Major, it is what I have said—ten miles. We passed the crossing of the barranca some time ago; there is no other before we reach El Plan.”

It was true. Although within range of the enemy’s lightest metal, we were ten miles off!

A vast chasm yawned between us and them. The next moment we were upon its brink, and, wheeling sharply to the right, we trotted on as fast as the rocky road would allow us.

“O heavens! Haller, we shall be too late. Gallop!” shouted Twing, as we pressed our horses side by side.

The troop at the word sprang into a gallop. El Plan, the bridge, the hamlet, the American camp with its thousand white pyramids, all burst upon us like a flash—below, far below, lying like a map. We are still opposite El Telegrafo!

“By heavens!” cried Twing, “our camp is empty!”

A few figures only were visible, straggling among the tents: the teamster, the camp-guard, the invalid soldier.

“Look! look!”

I followed the direction indicated. Against the long ridge that rose over the camp a dark-blue line could be traced—a line of uniformed men, glistening as they moved with the sparkle of ten thousand bayonets. It wound along the hill like a bristling snake, and, heading towards El Telegrafo, disappeared for a moment behind the ridge.

A gun from the globe-shaped hill—and then another! another! another!—a roll of musketry!—drums—bugles—shouts—cheering!

“The battle’s begun!”

“We are too late!”

We were still eight miles from the scene of action. We checked up, and sat chafing in our saddles.

And now the roll of musketry became incessant, and we could hear the crack! crack! of the American rifles. And bombs hurtled and rockets hissed through the air.

The round hill was shrouded in a cloud of sulphur, and through the smoke we could see small parties creeping up from rock to rock, from bush to bush, firing as they went. We could see some tumbling back under the leaden hail that was poured upon them from above.

And then a strong band debouched from the woods below, and strained upwards, daring all danger. Up, up!—and bayonets were crossed, and sabres glistened and grew red, and wild cries filled the air. And then came a cheer, long, loud, and exulting, and under the thinning smoke thousands were seen rushing down the steep, and flinging themselves into the woods.

We knew not as yet which party it was that were thus flying. We looked at the tower in breathless suspense. The cloud was around its base, where musketry was still rolling, sending its deadly missiles after the fugitives below.

“Look! look!” cried a voice: “the Mexican flag—it is down! See! ‘the star-spangled banner!’”

The American standard was slowly unfolding itself over the blue smoke, and we could easily distinguish the stripes, and the dark square in the corner with its silvery stars; and, as if with one voice, our troops broke into a wild “Hurrah!”

In less time than you have taken in reading this account of it the battle of Cerro Gordo was lost and won.

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