A RESCUE UNDER DIFFICULTIES
"Nothing here, cap'n."
It was Boxer the scout who spoke. For two hours he, Ben, and Luke Striker had been examining the trail running along the cliff. They could find footprints without number, but no trace of Larry.
"He must have gone somewhere," replied Ben, who could not bring himself to give up the hunt. "He wasn't spirited away. I've a good mind to make a hunt at the bottom of the cliff."
"As you will, cap'n. But, remember, this air side o' the valley is full of rebs, and if they catch us—"
"We must be on our guard. Boxer."
"I've got my eyes wide open," put in Luke. "I reckon on it as how I can see as far as any on 'em, too."
The walk to the cliff had not been accomplished without difficulty. Twice had they come close to running into the Filipino pickets, and once Luke had been almost certain they were being followed, but the alarm proved false. A night had been spent in the jungle, and at a point within half a mile of where Larry lay senseless under the big tree!
The hunt had revealed to the party the series of rough steps mentioned in the last chapter, and down these they now went and continued their search at the base of the cliff.
"What's this? " came from the old sailor, presently, and he pointed to the broken sapling hanging in the branches of the big tree. With the sapling was a shred of a garment, fluttering in the breeze like a signal of distress.
A close examination caused them to reach a conclusion which was, as we already know, true; namely, that Larry had come down with the sapling and landed in the big tree.
"And he wasn't killed, either," said Boxer. "For here is where he built a fire and cooked some birds' eggs."
"And he visited the pool, too," added Ben, examining the tracks with care. "Funny tracks these," he added, a second later.
"He was hopping on one foot," announced the scout, gravely. "That looks as if he had one leg hurt."
It was an easy matter to follow the trail through the jungle, for the ground was damp and covered with a moss which was torn with ease. Soon they reached the clearing where Larry had stopped to examine his ankle.
"Hullo, more footprints!" ejaculated Boxer, his face falling. "And rebs, too, I'll wager a new hat. Cap'n, I'm afraid your brother has run into worse trouble."
"It certainly looks like it," answered Ben. "Where do the footprints lead to?"
Where but back to the very rocks down which they had come but a few hours before! Soon they were back at the top of the cliff again.
Before leaving the valley Boxer studied the footprints closely, and now, although there were other footprints above, he followed the party having Larry in charge without making a single error. But it was slow work, and the encampment of the Filipinos was not discovered until nightfall.
"We've tracked 'em to a finish," announced Boxer. "Don't go any further, cap'n—unless you are ready to do some tall shooting."
"I can do some shooting if it's necessary," answered Ben, with a determined look on his face which was not to be mistaken. "I should like to make sure my brother is here."
"We'll walk around the camp and see," said Boxer, and this they did, slowly and cautiously, each with his weapons ready for immediate use. But the Filipinos were busy eating their suppers and smoking cigarettes, and did not discover them.
"There's Larry! " cried Luke, after a while. And he pointed to one side of the camp. The guards were just taking the lad to the general to be sentenced.
"Yes, yes!" answered Ben. He handled his pistol nervously. He could hardly restrain himself from rushing forward and embracing the long lost. Boxer saw what was in his mind and held him back.
"Don't be rash, cap'n," whispered the scout. "If you are, it may cost all of us our lives."
"I will try to be careful," was the answer, with an effort. "But what are they going to do with him?"
"They are taking him over to yonder tent."
Soon Larry disappeared inside the tent, and they crouched behind the bushes to await developments. While waiting, Ben made a mental calculation of the number of the enemy.
"A battalion, or more," he said to Boxer. "I wonder what they are doing so far from the main body of the troops?"
"Oh, their army is becoming badly scattered, cap'n. General Lawton has 'em on the run, and there won't be any of 'em left when he gets through with 'em."
As we know, the scene in the tent was a short one, and soon they saw Larry come out again, and saw him tied to the tree. The two soldiers detailed to guard him sat on either side of their prisoner, on rocks about six or eight yards from the tree.
"He seems to be the only prisoner in the camp," whispered Ben. "I wonder if I cant crawl up and cut him loose. I did that once for Gilbert Pennington."
"No, no!" interposed Boxer. "Those guards are wide awake and will shoot you in a minute. Wait till it gets darker—we may get a chance to do something then."
Slowly the minutes drifted by, Ben watching Larry every instant. He saw that his younger brother was exceedingly tired and held one foot up as if in pain. The young sailor had asked if he might not lie down, but this comfort had been denied him.
Both of the guards were puffing vigorously on their cigarettes, when one chanced to throw down a lighted match close to the rock upon which he was sitting. It set fire to some dry grass, but instead of putting it out, the guard watched the tiny conflagration grow stronger.
"Playing with fire, eh?" said his mate, lightly.
"Yes," was the slow answer. "How I would like to see Manila go up like that!"
"Yes, I would like to see that, too, Carlos, and the Americans in the flames. Ah, but the day when we are to take the capital seems a long way off now."
"Never mind; Aguinaldo says he is soon to have reënforcements from the south. When they come, let the American dogs beware!"
The talk was carried on in the Tagalog dialect, so Larry understood not a word. In the meantime, the fire crept up, making the guard's seat anything but comfortable.
"That's too much," he observed, and was on the point of kicking the fire out with his foot, when of a sudden he uttered a wild yell that startled everybody near him. "A snake! a snake! Oh, what a long creature!"
For from under the rock a huge reptile had glided, roused up by the heat. It was a snake peculiar to those mountains, and all of ten feet long and as thick as a man's arm. It struck the guard in the knee, and then whipped around in increased anger, for its tail had come in contact with the fire.
"A snake!" echoed the second guard, and fired his Mauser at the reptile. But he was too excited to shoot straight, and the bullet glanced along the rock and struck the first guard in the cheek, inflicting a fairly serious wound.
The cries of the two guards were taken up on all sides of the camp, and especially in the vicinity of the rock from under which the reptile had appeared. All the soldiers recognized the snake as a dangerous enemy; and as the reptile moved about, first one and then another ran to get out of its way, several in the meantime taking hasty shots at it, but failing to do any serious damage. For several minutes the prisoner was entirely forgotten.
It was Ben who saw the opportunity,—Ben and the ever-faithful Luke,—and rushing up, they cut Larry's bonds and fairly hustled him into the depth of the jungle behind the encampment. The young sailor could hardly understand what was taking place, but when he recognized his brother and his old messmate, he gave a shout of joy.
"You, Ben! and Luke! Oh, I must be dreaming!"
"No, you are not dreaming, Larry. We've been watching you for a long while, trying to do something. Can you run?"
"No; I sprained my ankle, and it is still sore."
"I'll carry him," said Luke. "You lead the way, cap'n. And Boxer had better bring up the rear guard."
"Right you are," came from the scout. "Have your weapons ready, cap'n. We may catch it hot, in spite of the alarm over the snake. Those rebs will be as mad as hornets when they find the lad is missing."
Away they went, Ben trying to find an easy path,—which was no small thing to do in that utter darkness,—and Luke coming up behind, breathing like a porpoise, but vowing he could carry Larry a mile were it necessary. Boxer kept as far to the rear as he dared without missing their trail, and the life of any Filipiiio who might have appeared would not have been worth a moment's purchase at the scout's hands.
They had covered but a few hundred yards when the shouting and firing at the encampment ceased. "I guess the snake is dead," said Ben. "Now they'll be after us."
The young captain was right; and soon they heard the enemy breaking through the jungle in detachments of three or four men each, all hotfooted to recapture the prisoner. They had observed the cut ropes and wondered if it was possible that Larry had severed them without assistance.
It was not long before Boxer got a good shot at the nearest of the pursuers. His aim was true, and the Tagal went down without so much as a groan. His companions stopped short, and then called some other soldiers to the scene. "The boy is armed and shoots like a sharpshooter," they told each other; and after that the search was continued with extra care. Of course Boxer kept out of sight; and as soon as he could, he joined Ben and the others.
"I think there must be a stream close at hand,—the one we crossed a few days ago," said he. "If we can get to that, we'll have some chance to hide."
"Let's get to it, then," gasped Luke, who felt that he could keep up but a short while longer.
"I'll take Larry, Luke," put in Ben, and the transfer was made, in spite of the old sailor's protests. Then Luke plunged ahead and soon announced that he could see the river through the bushes to the right. Soon they came out on some rocks. The stream was a mountain torrent, a rod wide and from two to three feet deep. They plunged in without delay.
As they could not walk against such a current, they followed the stream on its downward course almost to the edge of the cliff, where the torrent formed a pretty series of waterfalls. Then they crossed to the other side, and climbed into a tree growing directly at the water's edge,—a species of willow, with long, drooping branches.
"We ought to be safe here—at least for a while," said Boxer.
"It's hard to tell where one would be safe here," answered Ben. "The whole country seems to be invested with scattered bands of the insurgents."
He asked Larry about himself, and in a few words the younger brother told his story. Then Boxer stopped the talk.
"In a situation like this, it's best to have only ears and eyes," he said, and all saw at once the aptness of the remark.
But though they remained on guard the larger part of the night, nobody came to disturb them, and the only sound that broke the stillness was that of the water as it tumbled over the rocks below.
Ben was much worried over Larry's ankle, which had begun to swell again through having stood so long on it while being tied to the tree. He brought a canteen of water up from the stream and bathed it with this. This moistened the mashed-up leaves once more, and then the injured member felt better, and Larry caught a nap.
"I reckon we had better be moving again," said Boxer, while it wanted yet an hour to daylight. "Those rebs may be waiting for to see us, you know."
"Well, my brother can't run, so perhaps it will be just as well if you take a scout around and see if the coast is clear," said Ben.
"Certainly, cap'n." And Boxer made off without delay, moving through the jungle and along the stream as silently as some wild animal in search of its prey.
Fifteen minutes and more passed, and they began to wonder when the scout would come back, when a low whistle reached their ears.
"It's all right," came from Boxer.
"Nobody in sight?" questioned Ben.
"Nary a reb, cap'n."
"I'm glad of it," put in Larry, with a sigh of relief. "I never want to fall in with them again!" And he shuddered. He would never forget how close he had been to death at their hands.
They came down the tree, and after a drink from the stream, set out again, this time following the watercourse over the rocks until the cliff was left behind. Here they struck a bit of marsh and had to make a detour, finally coming out, much to their surprise, on what appeared to be a regular highway through the forest.
"Now, if we only knew where this leads to," cried Ben.
"I reckon it leads to San Isidro," came from Boxer. "But we may be a good number of mil—"
"Look! look!" ejaculated Striker, pointing up the road. "The rebels, as sure as you air born! An' they air comin' about a thousand strong, too. Boys, we air lost!"