The Campaign of the Jungle/Chapter 26

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Much chagrined, man and boy stood on the brink of the chasm before them and gazed at the other side. It was sloping, as Larry had said, and wet, which was worse. A jump, even for a trained athlete, would have been perilous in the extreme.

"Looks like we were stumped," remarked Leroy, laconically.

"And just as we were so near to yonder opening!" cried Larry, vexed beyond endurance. "If we only had a plank, or something."

He looked around, but nothing was at hand but the bare stone walls, with here and there a patch of dirt and a loose stone. He walked to one end of the hole.

"A fellow might climb along yonder shelf if he were a cat," he said dismally. "But I don't believe a human being could do it."

"No, and don't you go for to try it," put in the old sailor. "If you do, you'll break your neck, sure as guns is guns."

"Well, we've got to do something, Leroy."

"So we have; an' I move we sit down an' eat a bite o' the stew. Maybe eatin' will put some new ideas into our heads."

"I'd rather wait until we gain the open air."

"But we can't make it—yet—so be content, lad. It's something to know thet the blue sky is beyond."

They sat down, and soon finished one-half of what remained of the mess in the kettle. Never had anything tasted sweeter, and it was only by the exercise of the greatest self-control that they kept back a portion of the food.

"Perhaps we'll have to go back, remember that," said Leroy, as he put the cover on the kettle once more.

"Go back? No, no, Leroy! I'll try jumping over first."

"I don't think I shall. Thet hole— What's that?"

A sound had reached the old sailor's ears, coming from some distance ahead. It was the sound of footsteps approaching.

"Somebody is coming!" whispered Larry, and crouched down. Then a man put in an appearance, coming from the opposite end of the passageway. He was an American soldier, hatless and almost in tatters.

"Hullo there!" cried Larry, leaping up. "Oh, but I'm glad you came!"

At the cry the soldier stopped short in amazement. Larry's words echoed and reëchoed throughout the passage. He looked toward the pair at the chasm, but could make out little saving the torch which Leroy was holding.

"Who calls?" he asked at last.

"I called," answered the boy. "Can't you see us? We are two lost sailors, and we can't get over this beastly hole. Come this way, but be careful of where you step."

"You must be Americans by your voices. Am I right?"

"Yes; and you are an American, too," said Larry, as the soldier came closer. Soon he stood facing them, with a look of wonder on his bronzed features.

"How did you get here?" he demanded.

"It's a long story," answered Leroy. "We escaped from some rebels at the other end of this cave, and we've been wandering around since last night. Are you alone, or are our forces outside of this hole?"

"General Lawton's troops are a good many miles from here," answered the soldier. "I am one of his scouts, and I became separated from our command and got up here to escape being hunted down by the crowd of Filipinos that was after me. They are in the woods just outside of this hole."

"Then you are all alone?" said Larry, his face falling a little.

"Yes, although I think a couple of our men must be in this vicinity. We are pressing the rebels pretty hard, you know."

The scout's name was George Boxer, and he was one of the best marksmen in Chief Young's command. He listened to their story with interest, and at once agreed to do what he could for them. They noted with satisfaction that he was provided with both a rifle and a pistol, and also a belt well filled with ammunition.

It was an easy matter for Boxer to make his way into the open air and find a fallen tree limb of sufficient thickness to throw over the chasm as a make-shift bridge. As soon as the limb was secure, Larry and Leroy came over, and then the party of three made their way to the mouth of the cave.

It was a welcome sight to see the sky again and the sunshine, and Larry's eyes sparkled as he gazed down the mountain-side and at the vast panorama spread out before him. At their feet was a heavy jungle, and beyond a plain and a small hill, where a large body of insurgents were encamping.

"It's good to be in the fresh air again, eh, lad?" observed Leroy. "But I'm afraid we'll have a good bit o' trouble gettin' past them rebels," he added to George Boxer.

"We can't get past them in the daytime," answered the scout; "but I think we can make it after the sun goes down. And it will take us till sundown to get to the bottom of this mountain, if I am not mistaken."

Now they were in the open, it was decided to discard the kettle; and the three ate up what remained of the stew, along with the single ration which Boxer carried. Then they began the descent of the mountain-side, slipping over rocks and dirt as best they could, and finding their way around many an ugly pitfall.

"I suppose you think it's queer I came up so far," said Boxer, as they hurried downward. "The truth is I was so closely pursued I didn't realize how far I was going. Those rebels can climb the mountains like so many wildcats. I'm afraid we'll never clean them out if they take a stand up here."

It was hot, and now Leroy gazed from time to time at the sky. "A storm or something is coming," he said.

"Yes, something is coming," added Boxer. "I can tell it by the way the birds are flying about. They seem to be troubled."

"I see a cloud away off to the southward," put in Larry. "It's not large, but it's mighty black."

No more was said just then upon the subject; and they continued their journey down the mountain-side until they came to a fair-sized stream, where they quenched their thirst and took a wash. They were about to go on again when Boxer held up his hand as a warning.

"Great gophers, boys, we are running right into a nest of the rebels!" he whispered. "Back with you, before it is too late."

They looked ahead and saw that the scout was right. They started to go back; and as they turned, a Mauser rang out and a bullet clipped the bushes beside them.

"Discovered!" came from Leroy's lips. "Larry, I'm afraid the jig is up. Those Filipi—"

Crack! It was Boxer's rifle that rang out, and as the scout was a sharpshooter, it may be taken for granted that he brought down his man. Then the three set off on a run along the side of the mountain to where a slight rise of ground promised better hiding.

"We can't do much against such a crowd," said the scout. "But in a good spot we can hold out awhile, provided one of you can use my pistol."

"I can fire tolerably straight," answered Leroy, and took the weapon. Soon the rise was gained, and they plunged in behind a tangle of pines. The Filipinos were following them, although taking good care not to expose themselves needlessly to the fire of such a crack marksman as Boxer had proved himself to be.

From behind the tangle of growth, the three Americans watched the skilful advance of the enemy with dismay. "They are trying to surround us!" whispered Boxer. Then like a flash his rifle went up. The report was followed by a yell of pain, and a Filipino fell into view from behind a tree less than fifty yards distant. The poor fellow was hit in the side, but managed to crawl back into cover again, groaning dismally.

Leroy also fired, a second later, aiming at a tall Tagal who was crossing a clearing to their left. If he hit his mark, the rebel gave no sign, but the man disappeared in a great hurry. Then came a crashing through the bushes below and to the left, proving that the Filipinos were massing in those directions.

"Perhaps we had better try to crawl away from this—" began Larry, when a humming sound caught his ear. At the same time the sky grew black.

"Look! look!" yelled Leroy. "What is this—the end of the world?"

All looked up. The humming had increased to a whistle, and now came a crashing of trees and brush mingled with the wild cries of the Filipinos as they rushed away toward a near-by mountain stream. They knew what was coming, even if our friends did not.

And then the tornado was almost upon them. I say almost, for, thanks to an all-ruling Providence, it did not strike them fairly, but rushed to one side, where the Filipinos had been gathering. The light of day seemed to die out utterly, and the air was filled with flying debris and screaming birds and wild animals made homeless on the instant. The very earth seemed to quake with the violence of the trees uprooted, and branches and dirt flew all over the Americans, until they were buried as completely as Ben and his companions had been. Larry thought it was indeed the end of the world, and breathed a silent prayer that God might watch over him and those he loved.

At last the rushing wind ceased, and the crashing was lost in the distance. But the birds kept up their wild cries, and for several seconds neither Larry nor those with him moved, wondering if that was the end of the tornado, or if worse was to follow. But it was the end, and gradually they came forth one after another, to gaze on the mighty wreckage about them. It was Leroy who raised his hand solemnly to heaven.

"I thank God that we have been spared," he said, and Larry and the scout uttered an amen.

"Whether or not to leave the vicinity was a question. At last, seeing no more of the enemy, they plucked up courage enough to move down the mountain-side once more. But the tornado had made the passage more difficult than ever, and several times they had to turn back. Nightfall found them still some distance from the plain, with yet another jungle to pass before the open would be gained.

"We might as well make a night of it here," said Boxer, and footsore and weary Larry and Leroy agreed with him. It was not long before all dropped asleep, too tired to stand guard, and hardly deeming that one was necessary.

The tornado had killed numerous birds and small animals, and it was easy to pick up a plentiful breakfast.

"I don't know about making a fire," said Leroy. "Those rebels may spot us before we are aware."

Yet they were too hungry to go without eating, and in the end they built a fire of the driest wood they could find, and while Boxer cooked the birds, Larry and the old sailor scattered the smoke with their jackets, so that it might not go up in a cloud, and also kept their eyes open for the possible appearance of the rebels. But the tornado had scared the insurgents as much as it had anybody, and not one showed himself.

By eight o'clock they were once more on the way, Boxer leading with his gun ready for use, Larry in the centre, and Leroy bringing up the rear with the pistol.

They were just entering the jungle at the foot of the mountain when a strange moaning reached their ears and all halted. There was a silence, and then the moaning started up again.

"What is that?" questioned Larry. "It can't be a human being."

"I think I know what it is," returned the scout. "Wait here till I make sure," and he glided ahead and was soon lost to sight under a clump of tall trees which grew in somewhat of a clearing. Soon they heard him shouting for them to come on.

It was a water buffalo that was moaning. The beast had become caught under a partly fallen tree and could not release itself. It was a handsome animal and weighed a good many hundred pounds.

"Here's meat and to spare!" cried Boxer, and drawing forth a hunting knife, he put the caribao out of his misery in short order. "This is some more work of that tornado," he went on, as he proceeded to cut out a choice steak. "We won't starve for the next forty-eight hours."

"I hope by that time we'll have reached the army," answered Larry, and took the portion of meat handed to him. It was not a dainty thing to carry, but he had to shoulder it, since Boxer and Leroy were carrying the weapons.

As they proceeded, the jungle appeared to become more dense, until it was next to impossible to make any progress. Yet they felt that each step was bringing them closer to the open plain and to a point where few natives were likely to be congregated. "If we once get down to the bottom, we'll be all right," said Boxer.

But the scout had not reckoned on the fact that there was a hollow at the base of the mountain, and that the heavy rains had filled this full to overflowing. It was Larry who first called attention to the fact that the ground was growing damp. Then of a sudden the whole party stepped into the water up to their ankles.

Here was a new dilemma to face, and each looked at the others in anything but a happy mood. "Beats everything what luck we're having!" cried Leroy, in deep disgust. "I'd give a year's pay to be safe on board the Yorktown agin, keelhaul me if I wouldn't!"

"I suppose the best thing we can do is to march around the swamp-hole," replied Larry. "What do you say, Boxer?"

"Let us try it a bit further," replied the scout, and they moved forward with care. At first the ground appeared to grow better, but then they went down again halfway to their knees and in a muck that stuck to them like glue.

"It's no use, we'll have to go back," groaned Leroy, and turned about. Silently the others followed him, wondering where the adventure would end.