The Campaign of the Jungle/Chapter 15
THE ESCAPE FROM THE BURNING HOUSE
"Hullo, that's a new wrinkle!" exclaimed Ben. "They are going to try burning us out."
"Sure, an' thim haythins is up to all sorts av dodges," cried Dan Casey. "It's meself as would like to git a squint at th' feller that threw that."
"I've got him, I reckon," whispered Sorrel, taking a ready aim at a thin hedge to the left of the house. The report of his gun was followed by a shriek of pain, and a Filipino fell into view, the blood flowing freely from a wound in his neck. Soon his companions caught him by the legs and dragged him back into cover.
After this brief exchange of "compliments," as the tall Tennesseean called it, there came a lull. Evidently the natives were disconcerted by the unexpected fall of the man who had thrown the fire-ball and knew not what to do.
"Do you suppose they have quitted the vicinity?" questioned Jeming, after listening vainly for some sound from without. From a distance came a scattering fire, but around the native house was the silence of death, for the man who had been shot by Sorrel had fainted from loss of blood.
"They are up to something, you can be certain of that," answered Ben. "The Filipino is at his worst when he is silent."
"Right ye air, cap'n," put in Sorrel. "Yere she comes agin—an' a scorcher, too!"
From over the bushes came a huge fire-ball, blazing brightly. It struck the thatch of the cottage close to the edge of the roof, and before it fell to the ground had set fire to the abode, which began to burn as though no shower had wet it for a month.
"That settles it!" came from Jeming. "We've got to get out, or we'll be burnt up like rats in a corn-crib."
"But the sergeant—" began Sorrel, when a low moan issued from the corner.
"Never—mind—me, boys," came, with several gasps. "I'm—I'm going! Good—good—bye— to—to— Tell mother—"
He said no more, but fell back exhausted. All rushed to him, but ere anybody could raise his form again he was gone from this earth forever.
Tears stood in the eyes of Ralph Sorrel, and Jeming was scarcely less affected, for both had known the sergeant intimately. "Another victim," murmured the tall Tennesseean. "How long is this yere blamed war goin' ter last, anyhow?"
"Not much longer, I hope," answered Ben, in a low voice. "I, for one, have seen enough of bloodshed." Then the young captain straightened up, for fear he might break down. "But we must attend to our duty, and get away if we can. See, the flames are eating in at the window."
"All right, cap'n, I'm ready," said Sorrel. "But we must carry this yere body outside fust. We can't let it be burnt up, nohow."
He nodded to Jeming, who understood, and covering the form of the dead man with a blanket, they marched to the door with the stiffening form. The coast seemed clear, and they darted out and deposited their grewsome burden on the grass. They were just returning to the shelter of the doorway when two shots rang out, but neither was effective.
By this time the cottage was burning so fiercely that to remain inside longer would have proved highly dangerous. Accordingly, Ben called a council of war.
"I think we had best strike out for the grove of trees on the right," he announced. "The distance is shorter than to the other shelters, and the grass is so high that perhaps we can get some benefit by stooping down as we run."
"Right ye air, cap'n," answered Sorrel, and Casey and Jeming nodded.
"Surrendor, you Americanos!" came in a shout from without. "Surrendor, you beasts!"
"Let them burn up, they deserve it!" came in Spanish.
"All ready?" asked Ben, and receiving a nod, he hurried to a side window. Below was a small bush, and in a moment he had dropped to the ground. As he started through the long grass, Casey and the others followed him.
A wild yell speedily showed that this new movement had been discovered, and a dozen shots rang out. But the Filipinos were too excited to shoot straight, and the bullets merely clipped their way through the mango and other trees, or buried themselves in the side of the burning building.
At first Ben thought to fire in return. But to find shelter was the prime consideration, and on he went, holding his pistol in readiness, but without pulling the trigger. Here and there a Filipino could be seen flitting from bush to tree, but these glimpses were short and far from satisfactory.
"They are coming!" came from Dan Casey, just as the nearest of the trees was gained. "Back, ye rascals!" he shouted, and fired as quickly as he could. Casey was right; the Tagals were surrounding them, and now they had to fight back to back, in as hot a contest as the young captain had ever seen. They were clearly outnumbered, but retreat was impossible, for the Filipinos surrounded them upon every side.
What happened during the next five minutes is almost impossible to describe, for every movement was executed with lightning-like rapidity, the Filipinos bound to kill or capture the Americans, and at the same time afraid that they would slip like eels through their fingers. After a score of shots taken at a distance, they closed in, and Ben found himself confronted by two fierce-looking men, one armed with a Mauser rifle and the other with a wicked-looking bolo. The Mauser was empty, and its owner evidently out of ammunition, for as he advanced he used the weapon as a club.
Ben was hard pressed, for his pistol was now empty, and there was no chance to reload it. But his sword kept the two Tagals back, and had it not been for his gun, one of the enemy would have had his head split open from the blade. But now the rascal with the bolo tried to attack the young captain from one side, while he with the gun swung around to the other.
Ben could expect no aid from his companions, for all were as hotly engaged as himself; indeed, Sorrel more so, for he was fighting three men, while Jeming and Dan Casey, side by side, and with their backs against a heavy thorn-bush, were fighting the balance of the detachment.
The young captain felt that he could do little or nothing more, and expected each instant to have his assailants hurl themselves directly upon him, when a shout came from Sorrel which gave all of our friends hope.
"Some soldiers air comin'!" sang out the Tennesseean. "This way, boys, this way, an' be quick about it!""What's the matter?" came in a hoarse growl
"His sword kept the two Tagals back."—Page 147.
Taken by surprise, the Tagals were dumfounded, and for half a minute knew not what to do. Then they started to run, but this movement came too late, and four went down at the first volley from the newly arrived men. The others, realizing their helplessness, threw down their arms and surrendered.
"Had it hot, eh, captain," said the North Dakota man to Ben as he came up with a quizzical smile on his round face, from which the perspiration was pouring in a stream.
"Yes," panted Ben. "You came up in the nick of time, and I must thank you for—"
"That's all right, captain—no more than you would do for me, and I know it." The North Dakota man shook hands. "It's been a long running fight to-day," he added. "Where is your command?"
"That remains to be found out," answered Ben. "Have you seen any of them during the last two hours? I and one of my men became separated from them in the cane-brakes."
"I guess you'll find them up near Baliuag. Most of the troops are up there. But I wouldn't try going around by this road, for the rebels are scattered in small bands all over this territory. You'll find the main road all right."
"What will you do with these prisoners?"
"Take them up to the main road and send to the colonel for orders."
"Then I will go with you," said Ben, and spoke to the others about it. Soon the whole party was on the way, Sorrel and Jeming carrying the dead form of Sergeant Kaser between them, with Casey trudging near to give them a lift whenever necessary.
It was now growing dark, and looked as if a thunderstorm was at hand. Seeing this, the detachment pushed forward rapidly, until at last the main road was gained. Here, from one of the drivers of a quartermaster's turnout, they learned that Ben's regiment had gone into temporary camp on the outskirts of the town of Baliuag, which was a mile further on. A number of Americans were missing, having become lost in a manner similar to Ben and Casey.
The young captain now lost no time in marching forward once more, and reached his regiment in less than half an hour. He found his company in charge of Gilmore. Many had given him up for dead, and they were delighted at his reappearance.
"We can't do without you," said the acting first lieutenant. And as he shook hands his honest face showed that he meant what he said.
"And I don't know that I can do without my company," replied Ben. "Anyway, I'm awfully glad to be back. In the future, I must be a little more careful about keeping the boys in sight."