The Campaign of the Jungle/Chapter 10

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"We are out for a fight to-day."

It was Sergeant Gilmore who spoke, and he addressed Ben. The sergeant was still acting as first lieutenant of Company D, and it looked as if he might hold the position permanently. As for Ben, it was settled that he would be appointed permanent captain of the command as soon as the necessary papers could be made out.

The regiment had joined General Lawton's command and was now in the vicinity of Angat, a pretty town, full of quaint buildings, and a place which, as yet, the rebellion had scarcely touched. But the insurgents had been developed in force by the sharpshooters in front, and now a constant rattle of musketry was heard, which made Ben's blood tingle as of old, when the cry had been, "On to Santiago!" and "On to Malolos!"

"Yes, you are right, Gilmore," answered the young captain. "And I am not sorry. It will help us to forget the rain and our other discomforts." Ben did not say it would help him to forget about Larry, but that is what he meant.

The regiment was soon advancing on the double-quick. It was spread out in skirmish order, and the route lay over what had once been a rice-field, but which was but little more than a sheet of dirty water four to eight inches deep. Here and there were holes, and into these some of the soldiers would sometimes step, thus getting an involuntary bath, much to their disgust.

"It ain't all a picnic," remarked one of the unfortunates, as he leaped up out of a hole and shook himself like a big dog. "Folks at home as just read the newspaper accounts of the war don't know anything of what us fellows have to put up with. All they think we do is to rush forward, kill the enemy, and cover ourselves with glory. I'll wager some of 'em would put on a mighty sour face if they had to tramp ten or twenty miles in the mud and wet, carry a gun and other luggage, and hardly knowing when the next meal was going to turn up and what it was going to amount to."

"Oh, you've got 'em bad, Bradner!" shouted a comrade. "Here, light my pipe and take a smoke. It will dry off your nose if nothing else." And Bradner took the pipe and was thankful that tobacco, at least, was still forthcoming.

Half an hour later Ben received orders to take his company up to the firing line, and away went the command on the double-quick, with the young captain at the head. The rain had let up a bit, and the rebels could be seen making a stand behind a grove of half-wild plantains, where were located a score of nipa huts.

"Run them out, boys!" shouted Ben, as they drew closer. "If we go at them with a rush we'll soon have them on the run!" And on swept the company, with orders to fire at will. Soon there was a constant cracking of rifles, and Ben and the other officers joined in with their pistols. The insurgents fired in return, and one man of the company fell back, hit in the arm.

Just before the grove was gained there was a brook to cross. This was much swollen, and here a number of the soldiers came to a halt, fearing that fording was out of the question.

"Don't stop!" came in a loud cry from Major Morris. "You can leap the stream easily enough. Come, I'm going!" And over he went with a bound, and a score of soldiers followed. A raking fire came from the nipa huts, but now the rebels were seen to be fleeing. The Americans answered the fire with volley after volley from their own guns, and the huts were surrounded as quickly as possible.

"Captain Russell, you will take the trail to the left," said an orderly, dashing up. "Major Morris will rejoin you at the fork in the road."

"The trail to the left," repeated Ben, and turned to his company. "Forward, boys,—left oblique!" he shouted, and on they went again, past the nipa huts and down a trail leading along the edge of a rich plantation. Several more huts were passed, but the inmates were nothing but women and children, and offered no resistance. Then at a distance could be seen a stone wall, as if the insurgents had endeavored to construct a rude fortification in a great hurry.

The company was going at the stone wall pellmell when Ben called a sudden halt. "To the right, boys, and come at the end of the wall," were his orders, and the command swept around as desired.

Bang! The report was hardly expected, and with it half a dozen of the stones composing the rude fortification gave way, disclosing a cannon made of a bored-out tree-trunk, wound round and round with telegraph wire stolen from the lines along the railroad. This wooden cannon had been heavily charged with cartridges, old nails, and bits of iron, and the first discharge rent the mouth into a dozen pieces.

"That was a narrow shave!" cried Gilmore, as he and Ben looked around, to find all the company unharmed. "Who ever supposed the rascals would put up such a job as that on us?"

"They'll do anything," replied the young captain. "But that isn't a new idea. Wooden cannons were used in the Civil War, so I've been told."

With the discharge of the wooden gun, the rebels concealed behind the stone fortification had fled. The Americans now made after them, more "hot-footed" than ever, and the incessant crack of firearms was followed by many a groan and yell of pain as over a dozen Filipinos went down, three to their death.

At the fork mentioned by Major Morris, Ben brought his company to a halt. All were panting for breath, for the brush at close quarters had put them on their mettle. The rest of the battalion soon came, up, and the other battalions followed, from another road, and then the regiment, with the other troops, pushed on into Angat.

Much to the astonishment of all, the beautiful town, with its century-old churches and quaint government buildings, was found practically deserted. The only inhabitants left were a few women and a handful of aged men, all of whom said they would do anything for the Americanos if they were spared their lives. These frightened people were soon put at ease, and then an inspection of the captured place was instituted.

In various places, such as the vaults of convents and government buildings, huge quantities of pilai, that is, unhulled rice, were found. Some of the rice was confiscated for army use, and a large quantity was distributed to the natives who gradually drifted in, saying they wanted to be friendly, and that they were starving.

"It may be that the rice we give away may go to the rebels," said the general in command. "But we can't let these poor wretches starve, war or no war;" and so the bags were given out until verylittle remained.

It was not General Lawton's intention to quarter at Angat for any length of time, and, having entered the town in the morning, he left it in the afternoon, to begin an advance up the river the next day, striking San Rafael on the right bank and Muronco on the left bank.

"Somebody has set Angat on fire!" exclaimed Ben, as the regiment marched away. A thick column of smoke had suddenly risen from the upper end of the town.

"I don't believe it was our men," answered Major Morris, who walked beside the young captain. "They had strict orders not to loot or burn."

The flames speedily increased, as one nipa hut after another caught, and the warehouses added to the blaze. The Americans always thought the rebels started this conflagration, while the insurgents laid the crime at our door. However it was, Angat burned fiercely, and by nightfall little remained of its many picturesque buildings.

The weather was beginning to tell upon the troops, and out of Ben's regiment fully forty men were on the sick list, with either colds or tropical fever, and these had to be sent back to a sick camp. The balance of the command, it was decided, should join the troops that were to attack San Rafael.

As before, the sharpshooters were in front, while the infantry were escorted by Scott's battery, who, as soon as the enemy's firing line was located, began to pour in a hot fire of shrapnel, much to the latter's discomfiture. Then Ben's regiment went into action once more, the young captain's company on the edge of some heavy brush.

The sharp clip, clip of Mauser bullets made unpleasant music as the soldier boys rushed through the thickets, to surprise not a few Filipinos who were in hiding, and who imagined that the Americans would pass them by unnoticed. Once Ben came upon a man lying on his face in a mass of tall grass, every part of his body concealed but his back.

"Can he be dead?" thought the young captain, when of a sudden the native leaped up like lightning and darted behind the nearest bushes before anybody could stop him. Half a dozen soldiers fired on him, and he fired in return, but none of the shots took effect; and Ben could not but think that the poor creature had earned his escape. "For ten chances to one he doesn't know what he is fighting about," he said to Gilmore.

"Right you are," answered the lieutenant. "I believe if we could corral the whole crowd and explain the true situation to them, they would throw down their arms without hesitation. It is only the leaders who are keeping this rebellion alive."

Over near the battery just mentioned stood General Lawton, tall and erect, directing every movement, without a single thought of personal danger. Many a shot was directed at him, but he seemed to bear a charmed life.

"San Rafael will soon be ours," said one of the officers of the staff. "See, the enemy are retreating!" he cried enthusiastically.

At that moment an orderly dashed up, carrying an order from General Otis. The order read that the column must rest at Angat until supplies could be forwarded from Malolos. A shadow fell over the commander's face. Another victory was at hand—but orders were orders, and must be obeyed. Slowly the retreat was sounded, and the insurgents were left in possession of the field. They thought the Americans were being forced back on account of a heavy loss, and went almost wild with delight, proclaiming the encounter a great victory for the Filipino cause.