THE ADVANCE UPON SAN ISIDRO
"Why, Luke Striker, is it possible! I thought you had sailed for the United States on the Olympia."
"Well, ye hadn't no right to think that, captain," responded the old gunner, as he shook bands warmly. "It might be that the others could go away and leave Larry behind, but he's too much my boy for me to do that—yes, sirree. When I hears as we were to set sail for the States, I goes up to the admiral himself, an' says I: 'Admiral,' says I, 'do you remember how Larry Russell an' yer humble servant comes on board of the Olympia?' says I. 'Yes,' says he. 'I remember it well,' says he. 'Well,' says I, 'Larry is ashore, a prisoner of the enemy,' says I. 'I don't want to go for to leave him, nohow. Can't you leave me behind,' says I. And he laughs and asks me all about Larry, and finally says I can go ashore and report to Rear Admiral Watson—who is comin' on—sometime later. And here I am, come to the front, to find Larry, ef sech a thing is possible."
The old sailor's honest speech went straight to Ben's heart, and he saw very plainly how deep was Luke's affection for his younger brother. "You're a messmate worth having, Luke!" he exclaimed. "I don't wonder Larry thought so much of you."
"Avast, I'm only a common sea-dog at the best, captain,—an' ef I remained behind to cast around fer the lad, ye mustn't think thet Jack Biddle an' the others have forgotten Larry, fer they ain't, not by a jugful. Every man jack o' them is his friend, an' was, almost from the start."
Luke had come up to the camp by way of Malolos, accompanying a pack-train of caribao carts carrying rations and army equipments. He had left the Olympia several days before, and had not waited to witness the departure of the flagship.
As Luke wished to remain with Ben, the latter lost no time in presenting the matter to Colonel Darcy and to Major Morris, and Luke was taken into the regiment camp as a cook, for he had once been a cook on a merchantman, years before. The position was largely an honorary one, and the sailor was permitted to leave his pots and kettles whenever he pleased.
"It's good news," he said, when the young captain had told him what the prisoners had said about Larry and Benedicto Lupez. "I've an idee we'll get to Larry soon, an' down thet tarnal Spaniard in the bargain."
The conversation took place on Tuesday. On Wednesday orders came to strike camp, and the march of the regiment was taken toward San Isidro by way of Baluarte, a small village seven niles to the southeast of the new rebel capital, In the meantime, although the Americans were not aware of it, Aguinaldo was preparing to decamp, with his so-called congress, into the mountain fastnesses, still further northward.
"We are in for another fight," said Major Morris, as he came to Ben that afternoon. "And I've an idea it is going to be something to the finish."
"That means, then, that we are bound for San Isidro!" cried the young captain. "Hurrah! that's the best news I've heard in a week."
The regiment was soon on the road, spread out in proper battalion form. The day was close, and it looked as if a thunderstorm was at hand. The growth along the road was thick, and at certain points the overhanging branches had to be cut off that the troops might pass. The trail was bad, and often a gun, or wagon, had to stop so that a hole might be bridged over with bamboo poles. Here and there they passed a nipa hut, but these places were deserted, excepting in rare instances, where an aged native would stand at the door, holding up a white rag as a signal of surrender, or to show that he was an amigo, or friend.
"It's pitiable," said Ben to Major Morris, as they trudged along side by side. "I reckon some of these ignorant creatures have an idea that we have come to annihilate them."
"You can be sure that Aguinaldo and his followers have taught them something like that," replied the major. "Otherwise, they wouldn't look so terrified."
At one point in the road, they came to a tumbledown hut, at the doorway of which rested a woman and her three small children, all watching the soldiers with eyes full of terror. Going up to the woman, Ben spoke kindly to her, but she immediately fled into the dilapidated structure, dragging her trio of offspring after her.
"You can't make friends that way," cried Major Morris. "They won't trust you. I've tried it more than once."
There was now a hill to climb, thick with tropical trees and brush. The regiment had scarcely covered a hundred feet of the ascent, when there came a volley of shots from a ridge beyond, which wounded two soldiers in the front rank.
"The rebels are in sight!" was the cry. "Come on, boys, let us drive 'em back! On to San Isidro!" And away went one battalion after another, fatigued by a two miles' tramp, but eager to engage once more in the fray. It was found that the insurgents had the ridge well fortified, and General Lawton at once spread out his troops in a semi-circle, in the hope of surrounding the ridge and cutting off the defenders from the main body of Aguinaldo's army.
Ben's regiment was coming, "head on," for the top of the ridge. The way was over ground much broken by tree-stumps, rocks, and entangling vines, that brought many a soldier flat.
"Sure, an' it's a rigular fish-net!" spluttered Dan Casey, as he tried in vain to rise, with vines ensnaring both arms and legs. "I don't know but phwat a fellow wants a wire-cutter here, Just as they had 'em in Cuby to cut the wire finces wid."
"Nefer mind, so long as we got by der dop of dot hill," answered Carl Stummer, as he hauled his mate out of the entanglement. "Be dankful dot you ain't parefooted by dem dorns." And on went both once more. There was many a slip and a tumble, but very little grumbling.
"Down!" The cry came from the front, and down went Ben's company into a little hollow, for the rebels had them in plain view now, and the two lines were less than three hundred yards apart. A volley from the insurgents followed, but nobody was struck.
"Forward twenty-five yards!" cried Ben, and up went the company for another dash. It was a soul-trying moment, and none felt it more than the young commander, who ran on ahead to inspire his men. He knew that at any instant a bullet might hit him to lay him low forever. But his "baptism of fire" had been complete, and he did not flinch.
"Hot work, this!" The words came from Gilmore as he came up the hill close to Ben. "It's going to be no picnic taking that ridge."
"True, Gilmore; but it's got to be done," answered the young commander. "Down!" he shouted, and again the company fell flat. Then began a firing at will, which lasted the best part of ten minutes. The insurgents, likewise, fired, and a corporal and a private were wounded and had to be carried to the rear.
Looking around, Ben espied Luke Striker in the ranks of Company D. The old sailor had provided himself with a rifle and an ammunition belt, and was popping away at a lively rate.
"I couldn't help it," said Luke, when the young captain came up to him. "It's the best fun I've had sence thet air muss in Manila Bay, when we blowed old Montojo out o' the water, off Cavite. Say, but we'll git to the top o' the hill afore long, jes' see ef we don't!" And Luke blazed away again, and so Ben left him.
The rest of the battalion was now closing in, and soon another advance was made, until the first line of the American troops was less than a hundred and fifty yards away from the insurgents' outer intrenchments. Then a yell came from a jungle on the left.
"What's that? more rebels?" cried Ben, and listened.
"No, no, the Filipinos are retreating!" came from a score of throats. "See, they are scattering like sheep! Up the hill, fellows; the fight is ours!" And a regular stampede occurred, each command trying to get to the top of the ridge first. The rebels were indeed retreating into a thicket behind the ridge. They went less than half a mile, however, and then made another stand, this time on the upper side of a mountain stream,—the very stream at which Larry and his companions had stopped after the escape from the caves under the mountain.
To ford the stream would have been an easy matter under ordinary circumstances, but with the rebels guarding the upper bank, it was extremely hazardous, and the regiment came to a halt on the edge of the brush overhanging the water.
"They are straight ahead, boys," said Major Morris, after his scouts had reported to him. "We will make a detour to the right. Forward, and on the double-quick!"
Every soldier felt that delay would mean a serious loss, and a rapid rush was made through the jungle to a point where the stream became rocky and winding. Here an excellent ford was found, and they went over in column of fours, they could now enfilade the rebels' position, and this they did so disastrously that the Filipinos speedily threw down a large part of their arms and fled helter-skelter into the mountain fastnesses still further to the northward.
The battle over, the battalion came to rest under the shade of the trees lining' the stream, many of the soldiers throwing themselves down in a state bordering upon exhaustion, for the humidity in the air told upon them greatly, there was not a breath of a breeze, and the water hardly quenched the thirst that raged within them. As Major Morris declared, 'It was the primest place to catch a fever in' he had ever seen.
Ben was sitting at the foot of a tall tree talking to Gilmore, when he saw the advance guards bringing in two Americans, one evidently a sailor, at once he sprang to meet the sailor, thinking the man might know something about Larry.
The two men proved to be Dan Leroy and Boxer, the scout, and when he mentioned his brother's name to them, both were of course astonished.
"Do we know him!" cried Leroy. "Sure and didn't he and I run away together from the rebels, and Boxer, here, helping us to get out of the prison caves. Yes, yes, I know Larry well." And then Leroy told of the escape from the caves, and of how all three of the party had become lost in the swamp lands.
"We were in the swamps two days, and thought we would never get out," he-continued. "Luckily, we had some caribao meat with us; otherwise we should have starved to death. The swamps were full of mosquitoes and lizards and lots of other things, and we were almost eaten up alive, eh, Boxer?"
"So we were," replied the scout.
"But what of my brother?" asked Ben, impatiently.
At this the faces of both of the men fell.
"We can't say what became o' him," said the sailor from the Yorktown. "You see, after we got out of the swamp, we determined to stick to the high ground until we found a regular trail leading to the south. Well, our walk took us up to a high cliff overlooking a gorge filled with trees and bushes. We were walking ahead, with Larry at our heels, as we thought, when Boxer chanced to look around, and the boy was gone."
"Gone!" gasped Ben, in horror.
"Yes, gone! We couldn't understand it, and called to him, but he didn't answer. Then we went back about quarter of a mile, past the spot where we had seen him last, and fired the pistol as a signal. But he had disappeared totally, and we couldn't find hide nor hair o' him, try our level best."
The confession was a sickening one, and for several minutes Ben could not trust himself to speak.
"And—and what do you think became of my brother?" he asked, at length.
Both men shrugged their shoulders. "I'm afraid he fell over the cliff," said Boxer. "You see, the footpath was narrow and mighty slippery in spots."
At once Ben's mind went back to that scene in far-away Cuba, when Gerald Holgait had fallen over a cliff. Had a similar fate overtaken his brother? and if so, was he still alive or had he been dashed to his death?
"How far is that spot from here?" he demanded abruptly.
"Not over a mile, cap'n," answered Boxer.
"I see you are a scout. Can you take me to the place?"
"Certainly—but—but—it's mighty risky, cap'n—so many rebs lurking about."
"Never mind—I must find Larry, alive or dead. Take me to him, and I'll pay you well for your services."
"I ain't asking a cent, cap'n—that ain't my style."
"Then you will take me?"
"I will," said Boxer, promptly. "Only I'll have to report first and get official permission."
"Major Morris will arrange that for you, I feel certain," answered Ben, turning to the major, who sat near, drinking in the conversation.
"Yes, I'll arrange that," said the major. "But I don't see how I am going to do without you, captain."
"Would you keep me from looking for my brother?"
"No, no, go ahead, and Gilmore can take the company."
So it was arranged; and inside of quarter of an hour Ben and Boxer were ready to depart.
"Captain, can't I go with ye?" It was Luke Striker who asked the question. The anxious look on his face spoke more eloquently than words, and Ben consented without argument.
And so the three set off on the search for Larry, little dreaming of the strange happenings in store for them.