The Campaign of the Jungle/Chapter 17
IN AND OUT OF A STRANGE PITFALL
Major Morris and Ben had fallen into a pit dug by the Filipinos for the purpose of catching their enemies. It was an old trick, and one which had been used quite extensively at the opening of the rebellion, but which was now falling into disuse, for the reason that few Americans were ever caught by the device.
The method was to dig a square hole in the centre of some trail or road which the Americans would probably use in their advance. At the bottom of this hole would be planted upright a number of sharp bamboo sticks, and then the top would be covered over with slender bamboo sticks and loose grass or palm leaves. If one or more persons stepped upon the top sticks, they would break at once, and the unfortunates would fall upon the sharp points below, which were certain to inflict more or less serious injury.
Fortunately, however, for the young captain and his companion, the hole into which they had tumbled was not provided with the sharp sticks mentioned. The natives had just finished the opening when an officer had called upon them to leave the vicinity as it was getting dangerous, owing to the rapid advances made by the Americans. So the trap had been set with its most dangerous element lacking.
Yet the fall was by no means a pleasant one, and for a brief instant the young captain of Company D thought that the bottom had dropped out of everything, and that he would surely be killed. He tried to catch hold of something, but all he could reach was the major's shoulder, and then both landed with a thud on the soft dirt left at the bottom of the hole.
Ben was the first on his feet, which was not saying much, since the bottom of the opening was not level, and he stood in the soft loam up to his ankles. Shaking himself to find that no bones were broken, he drew a long breath.
"Major, are you all right?" he asked.
"No—no—I'm not all—all right," came with a gasp. "I've had my wi—wind knocked ou—out of me."
"Any bones broken?"
"I gue—guess not. But wh—who ever heard of such a con—founded trick?"
"I've heard of it several times, major. But we are not as bad off as we might have been had the rebels put some sharp sticks down here to spit us with."
"True." Major Morris gave a grunt, and wiped the dirt from his eyes. "Well, I reckon we've learned what their engineering corps was up to."
This was said so dryly that in spite of his discomfiture Ben was compelled to laugh.
"Yes, we've learned. The question is, now we are down here, how are we going to get out?"
"Better make a light and see how deep the hole is first," replied the commander of the first battalion.
Fortunately Ben had plenty of matches with him, and striking one, he lit a bamboo stalk and held it up as a torch. By the flickering light thus afforded they saw that the hole was about eight feet wide and twice as long. The level of the road above was fully eight feet over their heads.
"Looks as if we were in a box, eh, captain?" said the major, grimly.
"We're certainly in a hole," responded Ben. "But I think we can get out without much trouble. I wish we had a spade."
"Well, wishing won't bring one, and there is nothing here to take the place of one, either."
"Nothing but our hands. Here, if you'll hold the light, I'll see what I can do."
"Here is a bit of a flat stick, try that," rejoined Major Morris; and taking the article mentioned, Ben set to work with vigor, attacking one end of the hole by loosening the dirt so that a large portion of it soon fell at their feet. Standing upon the fallen portion he continued his operations, and presently more of the dirt fell, leaving an incline up which both began to scramble on hands and knees. It was not a very dignified thing to do, but it was far better than to remain in the hole, and besides, there was nobody at hand to comment on the want of dignity in the movement.
"We are well out of that," began Major Morris, brushing off his clothing as he spoke. "In the future—"
"Hold on, major, somebody is coming," interrupted Ben, and pulled his companion back. He had seen a faint light advancing toward them, from a side road which joined the main road at a point but a few yards distant. Soon he made out a heavy cart approaching, drawn by a pair of caribaos, or water buffaloes. On the seat of the cart sat two sleepy-looking natives.
"We must stop that cart," was the major's comment. "If we don't, there will be a bad smash-up."
"I don't think it's a good plan to expose ourselves," replied Ben. "But do you want those chaps to break their necks?" demanded the commander of the first battalion. "More than likely they are amigos."
"I've got a plan for warning them, major."
As Ben spoke he picked up some of the driest of the grass and palm leaves and applied a match to the stuff. It blazed up readily, and he threw the mass in with the other stuff about the edge of the hole.
"There, if they can't see that they must be blind," he said. "Come, let us get out," and off they ran for the thicket close at hand. From here they watched the cart and saw it come to a halt near the hole and knew that the turnout was safe.
"I shouldn't think the rebels would care to leave those holes about," was Major Morris' comment, as they pushed on once more. "They are as dangerous to their own people as they are to us."
"I suppose they tell their own people about them."
"Those men on the buffalo cart evidently knew nothing."
"The rebels don't care for the amigos. Their idea is, if a native is not with them, he is against them, and must suffer with the Americans."
To play the part of spies in such a country as this was not easy, for the Americans were easily distinguished from the natives. Had Ben and the major spoken Spanish fluently, they might have passed for Spaniards, as each was tanned from constant exposure to the strong sun. But this could not be, and so they had to go ahead and trust to luck to see them through with their dangerous errand.
At length they felt that they must be close to the enemy's picket line, and paused to consider the situation. Before them was a gentle slope, terminating at a small but deep stream which flowed into the Rio Grande River.
"I think some of the rebels are over there," said the major, pointing to a hill, from the top of which could be seen a faint glow. "There is certainly a camp-fire back there."
"There is a house just below us," returned Ben. "Or is it a mill?"
"A mill most likely. They wouldn't build an ordinary dwelling right at the water's edge."
"Perhaps the rebels are using the mill as a sort of headquarters. What do you say if we investigate?"
The major agreed, and they began to pick their way along the stream. Soon they reached a rude bridge, and were on the point of crossing, when a sharp cry rang out from the building they were approaching.
"Hullo, that's a woman's voice!" exclaimed Ben. "Somebody is in trouble."
"Help! thief! murderer!" came in Spanish. "Oh, help, for the love of kind Heaven, help!"
"It's a woman, true enough!" ejaculated, the major. "I wonder what the trouble is?"
"I'm going to find out," answered Ben. The cry for aid appealed to his heart, and he bounded toward the mill-house, for such the building proved to be, without further hesitation. Nor was Major Morris far behind him.
As they came closer they saw that the structure was dark, saving for a faint light that came from one of the rooms built over the mill stream. It was in this room, evidently, that some sort of struggle was going on, for now both heard the cry for help repeated, followed by the overturning of a table. Then came the voices of two men, and the cry came to a sudden end.
"Two men are misusing some woman," cried Ben, "come on!" and rushing around to the front of the building, he found the rickety stairs leading to the house floor, and bounded upward. The door at the top stood ajar and he pushed it in, with Major Morris at his heels. The room at hand was dark, the struggle was going on in the apartment next to it.
Ben paused long enough to see that his pistol had not sustained any injury in the tumble into the hole, and was ready for use, and then threw open the door before him.
The light in the room was not very bright, but coming out of the darkness Ben could see but little, for a few seconds. The room was thick with the smoke of cigarettes, and through the haze the young captain made out two men standing beside an overturned table, one with a knife in his hand. To his intense surprise the men were Americans and dressed in the uniforms of regulars.
"What does this mean?" he demanded. "What are you—"
And then Ben got no further, for a swift look around the room told him that the two men were alone—that the woman he had heard crying for help was not there.