The Campaign of the Jungle/Chapter 18

CHAPTER XVIII


THE ADVENTURE AT THE MILL-HOUSE


For the moment it must be confessed that Ben was absolutely dumfounded, and Major Morris also. They had fully expected to see a woman in the hands of the regulars before them, and they could scarcely believe the evidence of their own senses.

But if the officers were astonished, the men they confronted were likewise taken back, and stared in amazement, which quickly gave way to consternation.

"What do you want?" demanded one, as soon as he could speak. And then he glanced over their shoulders to see if the newcomers were alone. "We thought we heard a woman in trouble," answered Ben, slowly.

"And we did hear a woman," put in the major. "Where is she?"

The two regulars exchanged unsteady glances, for each was somewhat the worse for liquor. "There ain't no woman here," answered one of them, sullenly.

"Then who was crying for help?" persisted the young captain.

"See here, cap'n, you are on the wrong trail," came from the older of the regulars. "Me and Bill's jest been having a little rumpus between ourselves. We meant no harm by it."

"I don't believe you," came from Major Morris, promptly. "There is some mystery here, and as sure as you're born I'm going to find out what it is!" he went on.

The major had scarcely finished when Ben's eyes fell to the floor, and he saw the outline of a trapdoor under one of the regular's feet. One edge of the door was raised about half an inch above the floor proper, as if the door had been opened and not put back evenly into place.

"Major, look at that trap-door!" he cried. "I'll wager they used it while we were coming up the outside stairs."

"You must be right, captain. If you'll—"

"We didn't use no trap-door," shouted the younger of the regulars, but he appeared much disconcerted over the discovery Ben had made.

"Captain, I have them covered," came from Major Morris, as he brought out the two pistols with which he had wisely provided himself. "Perhaps you had better investigate."

"I will," returned the young captain, and backed out of the room. The regulars wanted to stop him, but aiming his weappns at them the major told them to hold their peace.

"If everything is all right, you won't be harmed," he said. "But it doesn't look right to me. You have no business here, for one thing."

"And what business have you here?" demanded the older regular. And then he changed his manner. "We were captured in the fight of last week, and were just trying to get back to our lines again."

"We'll talk about that when my friend the captain gets back, my man. If we are treating you unjustly, I'll apologize and do the handsome thing by you," he added.

In the meantime Ben was making his way down to the bank of the stream, under the mill, with all possible speed. It was extremely dark, and he had to pick his way with caution for fear of tumbling into some ugly hollow. Below the mill was a fall of water, and here the stream ran between a series of sharp rocks.

Ben had just gained the bank of the stream when a low moan reached his ears. At first he could not locate the sound, but presently discovered that it came from the vicinity of the rocks. Feeling his way along he managed, but not without great difficulty, to gain the top of the rocks. Here he saw the water foaming and boiling twenty feet below.

"That woman must be down there," he muttered. Then he raised his voice. "Where are you?"

"Down here, by the rocks!" came back faintly. "Help! please help me!"

Locating the voice as well as he was able, the young captain began crawling down from one rock to another. This was difficult work, and he had to move with extreme care for fear of a tumble, which would land him directly into the boiling stream. At last, however, he found himself perched on a bit of a shelf, with the water less than two feet away.

From this point of view he beheld the sufferer, who was swinging in the water, with her arms tightly clutching a sharp stone which reared its point just above the surface of the stream. He saw that she was evidently a Spanish woman, well along in years, and that her dress was sadly torn,
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"Can you hold on a few minutes longer?"—Page 173.

and her long hair was floating loosely over her neck and face.

It must be confessed that the young captain was perplexed over the situation that confronted him. The sufferer was just beyond his reach, and he felt that to plunge into the water after her would be to take a big risk, for if the stream at this point was over his waist, the force of the current would carry him off in an instant.

"Can you hold on a few minutes longer?" he called out.

"No! no! I am too weak," came more faintly than ever. "Help me quickly, and Heaven will reward you!"

"I will do what I can—but you must hold tight for a minute," answered Ben.

Just above his head a number of bushes were growing, and among these he had espied a long, stout-looking shoot. Clambering to this, he pulled out his pocket-knife and cut it off. Then he leaped down once more, and holding tight to the rocks with one hand, shoved out the branch with the other. "Catch hold, if you can," he cried.

The woman understood and gave up the rock for the stick, and Ben pulled her toward him. It was no easy task, and once it looked as if she would lose her hold and be swept away. But in a minute the danger was past, and the young captain was hauling her up to where he stood. She was thoroughly exhausted, and no sooner did he have her in his arms than she fainted.

One difficulty had been overcome, but another still remained, and that was to get up to the safe ground above the rocks. But once again the bushes growing out of the crevices came into play, and, hauling himself from one to another, Ben at last found himself safe, with his burden resting heavily over his shoulder.

It was now that the young captain found the wonaan was suffering from a blow over the left temple, from which the blood was slowly trickling. Laying the form down, he brought out his handkerchief and bound up the wound as well as he was able. This had just been accomplished when the sufferer came again to her senses and stared around her in bewilderment.

"You—you—am I safe?" she asked, in broken English, but in a sweet voice which went straight to Ben's heart.

"Yes, madam, you are safe," he answered. "Did those two men throw you into the stream?"

"Yes, yes! Oh, they are villains, señor—great villains."

"I must say they look it, even if they are of our troops," replied the young captain. "Come, do you think you can walk back to the mill with me?"

The woman said she would try, and he assisted her to her feet. She was still very weak, and readily consented to lean on his arm; and thus they moved slowly back the way the captain of Company D had come.

During all this time Ben had not heard a sound from the house, and he was anxious to know how Major Morris was faring, although feeling positive that the major was fully capable of taking care of himself. Now, as they came closer, he heard loud talking.

"We ain't goin' to stay, major,—an' it ain't right fer you to ask us to," the older of the regulars was saying.

"You will stay, and that's the end of it," came in the major's clean-cut tones. "If you attempt to pass through that doorway, I'll put a bullet through you."

"But we are friends, major, and—"

"I don't know that I am a friend to you. It depends upon what my companion the captain will have to report when he gets back."

"He won't have nuthin' to report, so far as we are concerned," put in the younger regular. "We ain't done any wrong, 'ceptin' to quarrel a bit between us. Everybody has a set-to once in a while, you know."

By this time Ben was tramping up the outside stairs, supporting the woman as before. Now he pushed his way into the outer room of the millhouse, the woman following with some hesitancy. At the appearance of their late victim the regulars fell back as though struck a blow.

"Nice sort of chaps you are," exclaimed Ben, hotly. "You don't deserve to wear Uncle Sam's uniform. A set of prison stripes would suit both of you much better."

"Hullo, you've found the lady," cried the major. "Sit down, madam, and tell us what this means."

A bench was handy, and the sufferer dropped heavily upon it. The regulars looked as if they wished themselves anywhere but in their present situation, yet they did not dare to budge, for Major Morris still held "the drop" upon them, and the commander of the first battalion looked as if he would stand no nonsense.

"These men came here to rob me," said the woman, slowly. "They are of your kind, but they are not honest."

"Then they are not of our kind," answered Ben, promptly. "We do not allow our soldiers to rob anybody."

"We didn't come to steal—" began the older regular, when Major Morris stopped him.

"Silence!" Not another word until the lady has finished her story."

There was a second of painful silence, and the lady continued: "I am staying at the mill alone, for my husband has gone to the Laguna de Bay on business. Several hours ago, these two soldiers came in and demanded that I serve them with a hot supper. Not wishing to have trouble I gave them the best I had. But they were not satisfied, and broke into my husband's wine closet and drank two bottles of his choicest wine, and smoked his best cigarettes, package after package. Then, after drinking much wine, they demanded that I give them money, and that man," pointing to the older prisoner, "told his companion that I must have money hidden somewhere, as all the Spanish millowners in Luzon were rich, while the truth is, we are very poor, as the war has taken away everything. Then the men drank more, and at last they caught hold of me and threatened me with great violence if I did not give up what I had hidden away. I gave them the little silver I had, but they were not satisfied, and when I tried to run away, one hit me over the head with this bench. Then they plotted to get me out of the way entirely and go on a hunt for money themselves. I cried louder than ever, and then you started to come in. One of the men had opened that trap leading to the river, and as you came up the outer stairs both dropped me down, no doubt to drown me. I was swept down to the rocks at the falls, and there the capitan saved me, God bless him for it."