THE RESULT OF AN AMBUSH
"Good gracious, do you mean to say we have been camping over a powder magazine?" gasped Gilbert, as soon as he could speak.
"Sure, an' it's a wondber we wasn't all blowed to hivin!" came from Dan Casey.
"Und I boil mine chocolate so calmly as you blease," put in Carl Stummer, with a shudder. "Py chiminy, I ton't vos build no fire no more bis I vos sure of mine ground."
For several minutes the excitement was intense, and all of the soldiers retreated to a considerable distance from the hollow which had proved such a comfortable shelter.
Presently, however, Ben, Gilbert, and several others mustered up courage enough to go back and haul down the coverings put up. Then came another heavy downpour of rain, which speedily extinguished the fire; and the danger of an explosion was past.
An examination under the rocks proved that the Filipino gunner had told the truth. The powder was there, in big cans bearing the old Spanish stamp. Some was marked 1876, and was so old as to be practically worthless.
"They ought to have shot that off in honor of our centennial," remarked the young captain. "I don't wonder the rebels can't hit anything. This powder has no carrying power left to it."
Nevertheless the powder was carted off and added to the American stock. Then General Lawton rode up and Major Morris told in detail what had been accomplished.
With the fall of Maasin came another day of much-needed rest for the majority of the troops under General Lawton. In the meantime, while these soldiers were advancing from Angat upon San Isidro, the command under General MacArthur was far from idle. The Filipino commissioners wanted a three months' armistice, in order that the terms of a peace might be discussed, but to this the Americans would not listen, as they felt the enemy wished mainly to gain time in which to reorganize their shattered forces.
MacArthur's command was now in possession of Calumpit on the railroad, and Apalit, just above, on the Rio Grande; while the rebels in this territory began to mass at St. Tomas and at San Fernando, still further northward on the railroad. On May the 4th MacArthur's division set out from Apalit, with Hale's command on the right wing and Wheaton's on the left.
It was not supposed that the rebels would make a serious stand short of San Fernando, but at St. Tomas they were developed in force, and a running fight ensued, lasting several hours, but without great loss to the Americans. Finding they could not hold St. Tomas, the Filipinos set fire to the town and fled. They were pursued with vigor, and attempted to burn San Fernando late that night, but failed to do so.
Early in the morning the fighting was renewed, and near San Fernando another battle took place. But the rebels were disheartened by the defeat at St. Tomas, and were soon on the run, and General Hale drove them a mile beyond San Fernando. In taking possession of the town it was found that several of the public buildings were in ruins. The defensive w,orks here were very strong, and had the Filipinos stood up to their work like real fighters, they might have held the position for a long time.
On Saturday, May the 6th, Ben's command moved forward again, down the hill into Maasin, now patrolled by Americans, and then to the main road beyond.
"I don't believe we are in for much of a fight today," remarked the young captain to Gilmore, who had now been appointed first lieutenant.
"I reckon you are right," answered Gilmore. "The scouts haven't found any rebels within a mile."
"It would almost seem as if we could march straight through to San Isidro," went on Ben, thoughtfully. "I must say I never heard of such a campaign."
"They say General Lawton puts it down as a regular Indian campaign. But then the rebels don't do much fighting in the dark."
"They are sick of it, Gilmore. I believe they would give up in a minute if the leaders were only assured that they would come out whole, as the saying goes."
"Well, they've gone too far to come out whole, captain. General Aguinaldo may mean well, but he never went at this thing right. He ought to know that he isn't dealing with some third-rate power."
On went the regiment, about four hundred and fifty strong now, for men were dropping out every day on acount of fever and other tropical troubles. Ben had had a little fever himself, but had dosed himself with quinine before it had a chance to permeate his system and bring him down on his back.
The advance led the regiment along a small stream lined with fading flowers and wild plantains and the ever present thorns and trailing vines. Birds were numerous, and here and there a sporting soldier could not resist the temptation to bring one of the feathered tribe down, to be cooked at the next resting place. Once the regiment stirred up a flock of wild turkeys, and a charge was made to capture the prizes, a charge that was as enthusing as one on the rebels. Soldiers are but human and must have their fun, no matter under what difficulties.
"It's a fine turkey dinner we'll be afther havin' to-day," remarked Dan Casey, as he hung one of the birds over his shoulder. He had scarcely spoken, when pop-pop went several Mausers in a thicket beyond, the bullets singing their strange tune in the leaves over the advancers' heads.
"Forward!" shouted Major Morris, who was in temporary command of the regiment, and away they went once more, to suddenly find themselves on spongy soil which speedily let them down to their ankles. In the meantime the insurgents' fire became thicker than ever, and it looked as if they were caught in an ambush.
"Fire at will!" came the order. "To the left, boys, and make every shot tell!"
A roar of musketry drowned out the words, and immediately Ben's company found itself all but surrounded. To go into this quagmire had certainly been a grave error, but all leaders make mistakes sometimes; and Major Morris was suffering as greatly as his men.
The next half hour was one Ben never forgot. The rebels evidently thought they had the Americans at their mercy and pushed in closer and closer, until more than half of the contestants were fighting hand to hand. Many had exhausted their ammunition, and were using their bayonets or else handling their guns as clubs.
"Die!" cried one tall Tagal, as he flashed up before Ben with a bloody bolo. "Die!" he repeated in bad English, and made a lunge at the young captain. But Gilmore had his eye on the man, and the lieutenant's sword cut the bolo from the rebel's grasp.
"Good for you!" cried Ben. Then he drew a long breath, to think of the narrow escape he had had. The native, his hand flowing with blood, retreated as suddenly as he had approached.
The tide of the battle was now taking Americans and insurgents toward a cane-brake. The rebels still fought desperately, but they were beginning to lose confidence, for the Americans were pushing them hard.
But now came a cheer from the rear, and Company B rushed up to the aid of Ben's command. To the young captain's astonishment, GUbert was in command, all the upper officers being either killed or wounded.
"Gilbert!" he called, but had no time to say more. But the young Southerner heard and waved the sword he had picked up. Soon the two companies were fighting shoulder to shoulder, and the enemy were driven out into the cane-field, and then into a meadow. Here they tried to make a stand, around an old rice-house, and it took another half hour to dislodge them. But when they did retreat at last, they went in great haste, many leaving their weapons and outfits behind them.
The fighting over, Ben started to find the major. Gilbert accompanied him. Their first hunt for the 3ommander, however, was unsuccessful.
"It's queer," was Ben's comment. "I trust he isn't dead in the bushes."
The hunt gradually brought them to a trail through the jungle, and presently Gilbert heard a faint moan for help. Running in the direction, they found a soldier of Company C lying on some moss, his knee shattered from a Mauser bullet.
"Oh, the pain!" groaned the poor fellow. "Help me, won't you?"
"We'll do all we can for you," answered Ben, and while he went to work, Gilbert ran back to bring up the hospital corps with a stretcher.
"You want to go after Major Morris," said the wounded soldier, as soon as he felt comfortable enough to talk.
"We are looking for Major Morris," replied Ben, much astonished. "Where is he?"
"He was knocked over by one of the Dagos, md then three of 'em carried him away."
This was certainly news, and Ben waited impatiently for Gilbert to get back. As soon as the young Southerner returned, both asked the wounded soldier in what direction the captured major had been taken.
"They went through the cane-brake," was the answer. "You'll find the trail easily enough, I think, if you look for it. One of the rebs wore boots with high heels, so you can't miss 'em."
The wounded man did his best to point out the right direction, and was then taken back to the hospital tent. Without delay Ben called Ralph Sorrel and half a dozen others to his aid.
"We must go after Major Morris, and at once," he said. "Are you ready to undertake the work? It may be a dangerous proceeding."
"We're with yer, cap'n," answered Sorrel, and his sentiment was that of all of the others.
The trail into the cane-brake was followed without much difficulty, and the party of eight advanced as rapidly as the nature of the ground permitted. The storm had cleared off the night before, and the sun shone down hotly, making the air in the brake suffocating.
"This yere is a putty big cane-brake, an' no error," remarked Sorrel, after a quarter of a mile had been covered. "Cap'n, it won't do fer us to turn ourselves about an' git lost."
"We'll stick to the one trail," answered Ben. "As yet I've seen no side trails, although I've been watching every foot of the ground that we crossed."
"Nor I, cap'n,—an' don't wan't to, neither," added the tall mountaineer.
A little further on was a clearing, in the centre of which stood a small cane-house. Halting on the edge of the opening, they beheld several Filipinos on guard outside the house. In the doorway, with his back to the opening, stood Major Morris, his hands bound behind him.