The Campaign of the Jungle/Chapter 23

CHAPTER XXIII


THE TORNADO IN THE CANE-BRAKE


"I reckon we have got 'em tight, cap'n," came from Sorrel, as the party of Americans came to a halt and surveyed the scene before them.

"It depends upon how many of them there are," answered Ben. "Sorrel, supposing you skirt the clearing and try to count noses."

The Tennesseean was willing, and started off, taking Gilbert with him. He was gone probably ten minutes.

"Not more than ten at the most," he reported. "And of that number two are wounded and have their arms in slings."

"Any other prisoners besides Major Morris?"

"Not that we could see," came from Gilbert. "We could rush them easily enough if it wasn't for the major," he added.

"We don't want any harm to befall Major Morris," said Ben, thoughtfully. "If we— The rebels have discovered us, look out!"

Ben had scarcely finished when a report rang out and a bullet whizzed over their heads. One of the soldiers outside of the cane-house had seen two of the Americans and had fired upon them.

The discharge of the firearm caused Major Morris to turn around, and as he did so Ben waved his cap at his commander, and was recognized. Then two of the insurgents hurried the major out of sight.

The Americans were not slow to return the fire; and, although nobody was struck, the insurgents lost no time in disappearing from view. A lull followed, as both sides tried to determine what was best to be done next.

"Here comes a flag of truce," said Gilbert, presently, as a rebel appeared, holding up a white rag. "If I were you, I wouldn't honor it."

"I would like to hear what they have to say," replied Ben, quietly.

"But remember how they fired on the other flag of truce," insisted the young Southerner. "You'll be running your head into a lion's mouth."

"Sorrel, keep that man covered," said Ben. "I won't move out any further than he does."

"If you go, I'll go with you," said Gilbert, promptly.

He would not be put off, and together Ben and he moved into the opening, Ben holding up a new handkerchief as he walked. The rebel at once halted, as if expecting them to come over to where he stood.

"You come over here!" cried Gilbert, and waved his hand.

There was a full minute's delay, and then of a sudden the rebel threw down his white flag and sped toward the house. At the same time three reports rang out, and Gilbert fell back, struck in the shoulder.

"What did I tell you!" he gasped. "They are treacherous to the last degree! " And then the young Southerner fainted.

As just mentioned, three reports had rung out, but only two had come from the house. The third came from Ralph Sorrel's weapon, and the man who had carried the pretended flag of truce fell dead in his tracks.

The dastardly attack angered Ben beyond endurance, and leaving Gilbert resting comfortably on some cut cane, he leaped to the front. "Come, boys, we will root them out!" he cried, and ran on toward the house as fast as he could, firing as he went. Sorrel was at his heels, and the others fired, each "red-hot" as they afterward expressed it.

The insurgents saw them coming and fired several shots, but nobody was struck, and in a trice the house was surrounded. Then Major Morris came bounding through a window, and it was Ben who cut his bonds with a pocket-knife.

"I saw it all," exclaimed the major. "Go for them, men, every one of the rascals deserves death!" And stooping over the dead rebel, he took from his bosom a bolo and joined in the attack. "They are a pack of cowards—a mere set of camp followers."

The major was right; the rebels in the house were no regularly organized body, and at the first sign of real peril they fled by the back way, over a ditch and straight for the nearest jungle. But our friends were determined that they should not escape thus easily, and pursued them for nearly half a mile, killing one more and wounding three others. Long afterward they learned that those who had thus forfeited their lives were bandits from the mountains back of San Isidro. They had joined the forces under General Aguinaldo, merely for the booty to be picked up in the towns through which the rebel army passed.

As soon as the contest had come to an end, Ben hurried back to where he had left Gilbert. The wound from which the young Southerner was suffering was painful, but not dangerous. Yet it was likely to put Gilbert in the hospital for the best part of a month.

"It's too bad—I thought I could see the thing through to the end," said Gilbert, shaking his head dolefully.

"You'll have to take your dose as I did," answered Ben. "I am glad it is not serious. Our regiment couldn't afford to lose such a brave fellow as you."

"Brave? Didn't I hang back until you proposed to go out alone, Ben? If anybody was brave, it was you," and then Gilbert turned his face away to conceal the pain that was coming on.

The hospital corps was so busy that Gilbert could not be carried back of the firing line for some time. Feeling that there would be no more fighting that day, Ben decided to remain by his old chum, and requested Sorrel to do likewise, leaving the others to accompany Major Morris back to the command proper. In the meantime, a skirmish line was stretched to the north of the cane-brake, that the insurgents might not regain any of the lost territory.

It was frightfully hot, but scarcely had Major Morris left with his party than a faint breeze sprang up which gradually increased to a fair-sized wind. Making Gilbert as comfortable as possible under some of the tallest of the cane, Ben and Sorrel sat down beside him to do what they could to help him forget his pain.

The three had been sitting in the shade for the best part of half an hour, and Sorrel was sharpening his knife on the side leather of his shoe, when, glancing up, Ben noticed a peculiar cloud in the sky overhead.

"That looks rather queer," he remarked. "Does that denote a wind-storm. Sorrel?"

"It denotes something, that's sartin," responded the mountaineer, surveying the cloud with care. "It's something I ain't seed out yere yit," and he leaped to his feet.

The cloud was about as large as a barrel in appearance, and of a deep black color. It seemed to be whirling around and around, and as it came forward began to expand. Then it shot off to the southward, but not out of sight.

"I'm glad it's gone," said Gilbert, who had roused up to watch the strange thing. "I don't want to get caught in a western cyclone—and that cloud looks like those I have heard described."

"The rainy season is coming on here, and I presume we are bound to have more or less tornadoes," answered Ben. "They say that last year they were something awful along the seacoast."

The cloud was circling around the southern horizon, but now it turned once again and came slowly toward them. While it was yet quarter of a mile away, it shot down to earth and a strange humming sound reached their ears, followed by a whistling that caused each of them to shiver.

"It's a whirlwind!" yelled Sorrel. "Come into yonder hollow, cap'n!" and he caught hold of Gilbert and lifted him up. The hollow he mentioned was less than fifty feet away, yet to reach it in time was almost impossible, so swiftly did the tornado approach them. The air became black as night and was filled with cane, grass, and branches of trees. It struck the house in the clearing, and with a single mighty crash the structure went up into the air, to fall with another crash a hundred yards beyond.

Running with the tall Tennesseean, Ben pitched into the hollow just as the first of the tornado hurled itself at them. Down came the mountaineer, but taking good care that Gilbert should not be hurt by his quick leap. Then all fell flat, with their faces to earth.

It was like some horrible nightmare to Ben,—the whistling wind and the strange humming, the blackness, and the whirling cane and tree limbs. In some places the ground was furrowed up as by a plough, and down on their heads came dirt and grass, and then a shower of stalks that buried them completely. And still the wind kept up, in a madder gallop than ever. Ben felt as if every moment was going to be his last.

The time was an age; yet by the watch it was not yet five minutes when the tornado had departed, leaving its track of ruin behind. But still the party of three under the cane-stalks lay still, wondering if it was safe to get up.

"Do yer calkerlate it's over, cap'n?" came from Sorrel, after a painful pause.

"It appears to be, but there is no telling what such a thing will do next," answered the young captain, as he pressed on the stalks over him, and got up. "Gilbert, are you hurt?"

"No," came with a gasp. "But, Ben, that was—was a terror, wasn't it?"

"It was, Gilbert, and something I never want to witness again."

By this time Sorrel was also on his feet and hauling Gilbert into daylight. The cloud was gone, and the sun shone as brightly as ever. But at a great distance they saw the tornado sweeping up into the mountains.

"We are well out of it," was Ben's comment, as they watched the cloud until it was out of sight. "That played sad havoc here. I wonder what it will do in the mountains?"

No one could answer that question, and no one tried. Ben would have been very much surprised had anybody told him that the same tornado which had visited him was also to visit his brother Larry. But so it proved, as we shall speedily see.