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Chapter 53 - The Rifle Rangers by Mayne Reid

A Wholesale Capture

In a few minutes our greetings were over. Twing moved on, taking with him his squadron of mounted men. I had made up my mind to take the opposite road—the “back track”. I was now in command of a force—my own—and I felt keenly the necessity of doing something to redeem my late folly. Clayley was as anxious as myself.

“You do not need them any longer?” said I to Ripley, a gallant young fellow, who commanded the howitzer.

“No, Captain; I have thirty artillerists here. It is strange if we can’t keep the piece and manage it against ten times that number of such heroes as we have seen over yonder.” And he pointed to the flying enemy on the other side of the barranca.

“What say you to going with us?”

“I should like it well; but duty, my dear H.—duty! I must stay by the gun.”

“Good-bye, then, comrade! We have no time to lose—farewell!”

“Good-bye; and if you’re whipped, fall back on me. I’ll keep the piece here until you return, and there’ll be a good load of grape ready for anybody that may be in pursuit of you.”

The company had by this time formed on the flank of the howitzer, and at the words “Forward!—quick time!” started briskly across the hills.

In a few minutes we had reached the point where the road trended for some distance along the brow of the precipice. Here we halted a moment; and taking Lincoln and Raoul, I crawled forward to our former point of observation.

Our time spent at the battery had been so short that, with the difficulty which the enemy experienced in descending the cliff, the head of their line had only now reached the bottom of the barranca. They were running in twos and threes towards the stream, which, near this point, impinged upon the foot of the precipice. With a small glass that I had obtained from Ripley I could see their every movement. Some of them were without arms—they had doubtless thrown them away—while others still carried their muskets, and not a few were laden with knapsacks, and heavy burdens too; the household gods—perhaps stolen ones—of their own camp. As they reached the green-sward, dropping down in a constant stream, they rushed forward to the water, scrambling into it in thirsty crowds, and falling upon their knees to drink. Some of them filled their canteens and went on.

“They intend to take the hills,” thought I. I knew there was no water for miles in that direction.

As I swept the glass round the bottom of the cliff, I was struck with an object that stood in a clump of palm-trees. It was a mule saddled, and guarded by several soldiers more richly uniformed than the masses who were struggling past them.

“They are waiting for some officer of rank,” thought I. I moved the glass slowly along the line of descending bodies, and upward against the rocks to a small platform, nearly halfway up the cliff. Several bright uniforms flashed upon the lens. The platform was shaded with palms; and I could see that this party had halted a moment for the purpose (as I then conjectured) of allowing the foremost fugitives to pioneer the wooded bottom. I was right. As soon as these had crossed the stream, and made some way in the jungle along its banks, the former continued their descent; and now I saw what caused my pulse to beat feverishly—that one of these carried a dark object on his back. An object?—a man—and that man could be no other than the lame tyrant of Mexico.

I can scarcely describe my feelings at this moment. The young hunter who sees noble game—a bear, a panther, a buffalo—within reach of his rifle for the first time, might feel as I did. I hated this man, as all honest men must and should hate a cowardly despot. During our short campaign I had heard many a well-authenticated story of his base villainy, and I believe at that moment I would have willingly parted with my hand to have brought him as near to me as he appeared under the field of the telescope. I thought I could even distinguish the lines, deep furrowed by guilt, on his dark, malice-marked face; and, as I became sure of the identity, I drew back my head, cautioning my companions to do the same.

Now was the time for action, and, putting up the glass, we crawled back to our comrades. I had learned from Raoul that the dark line which I had noticed before was, as I had conjectured, the cañon of a small arroyo, heavily timbered, and forming a gap or pass that led to the Plan River. It was five miles distant, instead of three. So much the better, and with a quick, crouching gait we were once more upon our way. I had told my comrades enough to make some of them as eager as I. Many of them would have given half a life for a shot at game like that. Not a few of them remembered they had lost a brother on the plains of Goliad, or at the fortress of the Alamo.

The Rangers, moreover, had been chafing “all day for a fight”, and now, so unexpectedly led at something like it, they were just in the humour. They moved as one man, and the five miles that lay between us and the gorge were soon passed to the rear. We reached it, I think, in about half an hour. Considering the steep pass through which the enemy must come, we knew there was a breathing-time, though not long, for us; and during this I matured my plans, part of which I had arranged upon the route.

A short survey of the ground convinced us that it could not have been better fitted for an ambuscade had we chosen it at our leisure. The gorge or cañon did not run directly up the cliff, but in a zigzag line, so that a man at the top could only alarm another coming up after him by shouting or firing his piece. This was exactly what we wanted, knowing that, although we might capture a few of the foremost, those in the rear, being alarmed, could easily take to the river bottom and make their escape through the thickets. It was our design to make our prisoners, if possible, without firing a single shot; and this, under the circumstances, we did not deem an impossible matter.

The pass was a dry arroyo, its banks fringed with large pines and cotton-woods, matted together by llianas and vines. Where the gorge debouched into the uplands its banks were high and naked, with here and there a few scattered palmettos that grew up from huge hassocks of bunch-grass.

Behind each of these branches a rifleman was stationed, forming a deployed line, with its concave arc facing the embouchure of the gorge, and gradually closing in, so that it ended in a clump of thick chaparral upon the very verge of the precipice. At this point, on each side of the path, were stationed half a dozen men, in such a position as to be hidden from any party passing upward, until it had cleared the cañon and its retreat was secured against. At the opposite end of the elliptical deployment a stronger party was stationed, Clayley in command and Raoul to act as interpreter. Oakes and I took our places, commanding the separate detachments on the brow.

Our arrangements occupied us only a few minutes. I had to deal with men, many of whom had “surrounded” buffaloes in a somewhat similar manner; and it did not require much tact to teach them a few modifications in the game. In five minutes we were all in our places, waiting anxiously and in perfect silence.

As yet not a murmur had reached us from below, except the sighing of the wind through the tall trees, and the “sough” of the river as it tumbled away over its pebbly bed. Now and then we heard a stray shot, or the quick, sharp notes of a cavalry bugle; but these were far off, and only told of the wild work that was still going on along the road towards Encerro and Jalapa.

Not a word was spoken by us to each other. The men who were deployed along the hill lay hidden behind the hassocks of the palmettos, and from our position not one of them was to be seen.

I must confess I felt strange emotions at this moment—one of the most anxious of my life; and although I felt no hate towards the enemy—no desire to injure one of them, excepting him of whom I have spoken—there was something so wild, so thrilling, in the excitement of thus entrapping man, the highest of all animals, that I could not have foregone the inhuman sport. I had no intention that it should be inhuman. I well knew what would be their treatment as prisoners of war; and I had given orders that not a shot should be fired nor a blow struck, in case they threw down their arms and yielded without resistance. But for him—humanity had many a score to settle with him; and at the time I did not feel a very strong inclination to resist what would be the Rangers’ desire on that question.

“Is not all our fine ambuscade for nothing?” I said to myself, after a long period of waiting, and no signs of an enemy.

I had begun to fancy as much, and to suspect that the flying Mexicans had kept along the river, when a sound like the humming of bees came up the pass. Presently it grew louder, until I could distinguish the voices of men. Our hearts as yet beat louder than their voices. Now the stones rattled, as, loosened from their sloping beds, they rolled back and downwards.

“Guardaos, hombre!” (Look out, man!) shouted one.

“Carrajo!” cried another; “take care what you’re about! I haven’t escaped the Yankee bullets to-day to have my skull cloven in that fashion. Arriba! arriba!”

“I say, Antonio—you’re sure this road leads out above?”

“Quite sure, camarado.”

“And then on to Orizava?”

“On to Orizava—derecho, derecho” (straight).

“But how far—hombre?”

“Oh! there are halting-places—pueblitos.”

“Vaya! I don’t care how soon we reach them. I’m as hungry as a famished coyote.”

“Carrai! the coyotes of these parts won’t be hungry for some time. Vaya!”

“Who knows whether they’ve killed ‘El Cojo’?”

“‘Catch a fox, kill a fox.’ No. He’s found some hole to creep through, I warrant him.

“‘El que mata un ladron

Tiene cien años de perdon.’”

(He who kills a robber will receive a hundred years of pardon for the offence.)

This was hailed with a sally by the very men who, only one hour ago, were shouting themselves hoarse with the cries of “Viva el general, Viva Santa Anna!” And on they scrambled, talking as before, one of them informing his comrades with a laugh that if “los Tejanos” could lay their hands upon “El Cojo”, they, the Mexicans, would have to look out for a new president.

They had now passed us. We were looking at their backs. The first party contained a string of fifteen or twenty, mostly soldiers of the “raw battalions”—conscripts who wore the white linen jackets and wide, sailor-looking pantaloons of the volunteer.

Raw as these fellows were, either from their position in the battle, or, more likely, from a better knowledge of the country, they had been able thus far to make their escape, when thousands of their veteran companions had been captured. But few of them were armed; they had thrown their guns away in the hurry of flight.

At this moment we could distinguish the voice of Raoul:

“Alto! abajo las armas!” (Halt! down with your arms!)

At this challenge we could see—for they were still in sight—that some of the Mexicans leaped clear up from the ground. One or two looked back, as if with the intention of re-entering the gorge, but a dozen muzzles met their gaze.

“Adelante! adelante!—somos amigos.” (Forward!—we are friends), I said to them in a half-whisper, fearing to alarm their comrades in the rear, at the same time waving them onward.

As on one side Clayley presented a white flag, while on the other there was to be seen a bunch of dark yawning tubes, the Mexicans were not long in making their choice. In a minute they had disappeared from our sight, preferring the companionship of Clayley and Raoul, who would know how to dispose of them in a proper manner.

We had scarcely got rid of these when another string debouched up the glen, unsuspicious as were their comrades of the fate that awaited them.

These were managed in a similar manner; and another and another party, all of whom were obliged to give up their arms and fling themselves to the earth, as soon as they had reached the open ground above.

This continued until I began to grow fearful that we were making more prisoners than we could safely hold, and on the knowledge of this fact they might try to overpower us.

But the tempting prize had not yet appeared. He could not be far distant, and, allured by this prospect, I determined to hold out a while longer.

A termination, however, to our wholesale trapping was brought about by an unexpected event. A party, consisting of some ten or fifteen men, many of them officers, suddenly appeared, and marched boldly out of the gorge.

As these struck the level ground we could hear the “Alto!” of Raoul; but instead of halting, as their companions had done, several of them drew their swords and pistols and rushed down the pass.

A volley from both sides stopped the retreat of some; others escaped along the sides of the cliff; and a few—not over half a dozen—succeeded in entering the gorge. It was, of course, beyond our power to follow them; and I ordered the deployed line to close in around the prisoners already taken, lest they should attempt to imitate their braver comrades.

We had no fear of being assailed from the ravine. Those who had gone down carried a panic along with them that would secure us from that danger. At the same time we knew that the tyrant would now be alarmed and escape.

Several of the Rangers—souvenirs of Santa Fé and San Jacinto—requested my permission to go upon his “trail” and pick him off.

This request, under the circumstances, I could not grant, and we set about securing our prisoners. Gun-slings and waist-belts were soon split into thongs, and with these our captives were tied two and two, forming in all a battalion of a hundred and fifteen files—two hundred and thirty men.

With these, arranged in such a manner as we could most conveniently guard them, we marched triumphantly into the American camp.

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