THE GAP IN THE FIRING LINE
"Hullo, Lieutenant Horitz has fallen overboard!"
"Pull him out of the mud, before he smothers or drowns!"
Such were some of the cries which arose among the soldiers that filled the casco. Then Larry was shoved back, and two of them caught hold of the legs of the man who had disappeared, as for an instant they showed themselves. There was a "long pull, a strong pull, and a pull altogether," and up came the lieutenant, minus his hat and with his face and neck well plastered with the black ooze of the river bottom.
For a moment after he sank on the seat that was vacated to receive him, he could not speak. One of the soldiers handed him a handkerchief, and with this he proceeded to clear his eyes and ears, at the same time puffing vainly to get back his breath. At last he cleared his throat and glared angrily at Larry.
"You—you young whelp!" he fumed. "You—you knocked me over on purpose!"
"No, sir,-I did not," answered the young tar, promptly. "One of the soldiers shoved me up against you."
"I don't believe you," roared the unreasonable one, as he continued to clean himself off. "You shall pay dearly for this assault, mark me!"
"Didn't you shove me?" asked Larry, appealing to one of the soldiers.
"I shoved you off of my neck, yes," answered the enlisted man. "But I didn't throw you into Lieutenant Horitz. You did that yourself."
"Of course he did it himself," said another soldier, who did not wish to see his tent-mate get into trouble. "You had it in for the lieutenant ever since he first spoke to you."
"I shall report you the first chance I get," growled Lieutenant Horitz. "I reckon you'll find that General Lawton won't allow any such disgraceful conduct while he is in command."
"What's the row back there?" came out of the darkness. "Hurry up and get afloat, or we'll cut the rope and leave you to shift for yourselves."
"Our officer was just shoved overboard," answered Snapper, the soldier who had given Larry the unlucky push. "And we've lost our oar."
"No, I have the oar," put in Larry, making a clutch into the water for the article just as it was about to float out of reach. He leaped into the bow once more, and began to work vigorously, and in a few seconds they were again afloat.
Fortunately for the lieutenant the night was warm, so he suffered no inconvenience so far as his wet clothing was concerned. But it was no mean task to clean both himself and his uniform, and what to do for another hat he did not know. He would have taken Larry's headgear had that article been anyway suitable, but it was not.
It must be confessed that Larry felt thoroughly ill at ease. That there was trouble ahead went without saying, and he half wished himself safe back on the Olympia. "He'll make out the worst case he can against me," he thought. "And his men will back him up in all he says." Yet he felt that he was guilty of no intentional wrong-doing, and resolved to stand up for himself to the best of his ability.
The lieutenant had learned one lesson—that he knew no more about handling the casco than did Larry, if as much, and, consequently, he offered no more suggestions as to how to run the craft. But he kept muttering under his breath at the youth, and Larry felt that he was aching to "get square."
It was early dawn when the casco turned into the lake proper. As the sun came up it shed its light on one of the prettiest sheets of water Larry had ever beheld. The lake was as smooth as a millpond, and surrounded with long stretches of marshland and heavy thickets of tropical growth. Fish were plentiful, as could be seen by gazing into the clear depths below, and overhead circled innumerable birds. Villages dotted the lake shore at various points, but these the expedition gave a wide berth, setting out directly for Santa Cruz, still several miles distant, behind the hill previously mentioned.
If it had been General Lawton's intention to attack the town from in front in the dark, that plan had now to be changed, and the expedition turned toward shore at a point at least three miles from the town proper.
But even here the rebels could be seen to be on the alert, and a rapid-firing gun was put into action and directed along the lake front. The gun was manned by some men from the Napadan, and did such wonderful execution that soon the insurgent sentries were seen to be fleeing toward the town at utmost speed. Then a small detachment from some brush also retreated, and the coast was clear.
It was no easy matter to land, as the water here was shallow and the cascos had to be poled along over the soft mud. The sharpshooters were the first ashore, and they soon cleared a spot for the others. But a few of the rebels were "game," and as a result one man was wounded, although not seriously. The cavalry remained on the boats, to land closer to the hill later on.
The landing had consumed much valuable time, and it was now after noon. A hasty meal was had, and then the column moved off, spreading out in fan shape as it advanced, the sharpshooters to the front and the rear, and a number of special scouts on the alert to give the first warning of danger. Soon the scouts in front came back with the news that the insurgents were forming in front of our troops and that Santa Cruz and its garrison seemed thoroughly aroused to the danger which threatened.
"Forward, boys!" was the cry. "The more time we give them, the better they will be prepared to meet us. Forward without delay!" And the "boys" went forward with a wild hurrah, for everything thing promised well, and they were much pleased to have General Lawton lead them, even though they had no fault to find with their other commanders.
The first skirmish began on the extreme right. Some rebels had found their way to a hill behind the town, and they began the attack from a patch of wild plantains, thickly interlaced with tropical vines. Up the hill after them dashed the right wing, and the sharp rattle of musketry resounded upon both sides for the best part of half an hour. Then the rebels broke and ran, and in their eagerness our troops followed them until a point less than two miles from Santa Cruz was gained. Here the insurgents scattered, and could not be rounded up, and the right wing fell back, to unite with the main body of the expedition. But the woods were thick, the ground new to the Americans, and in the gathering darkness it was several hours before the firing line was compact once more. Then the expedition rested for the night.
Larry had landed with the soldiers, and, as the other cascos came up, he was speedily joined by Luke Striker and Jack Biddle.
"I wonder what part we air to take in this comin' mix-up?" queried Luke.
"Like as not they will leave us here to mind the boats," replied Larry. "I can tell you that I am rather sorry I came along," he added soberly.
"Sorry!" ejaculated Jack Biddle. "Surely, Larry, ye ain't afraid—"
"No, I'm not afraid," interrupted the youth. And then he told of the scene in the casco, and of what Lieutenant Horitz had said. When he had finished. Jack cut a wry face and Luke uttered a low whistle.
"You've run up agin a rock fer sartin, Larry," remarked Luke. "I reckon he can make things look putty bad for ye if he's of a mind to do it."
"Keep quiet an' say nuthin', an' he may forgit all about it," was Jack Biddle's advice.
The boats having been cared for, the sailors followed the soldiers through the field and into the woods. All told there were twenty-five jackies, and by common consent they formed themselves into a company of their own, with a petty officer named Gordell at their head. Gordell went to General Lawton for directions, and was told to follow the volunteers until given further orders. Each sailor was armed with a pistol and a ship's cutlass.
The march was a hot one, but Larry was now getting accustomed to the tropics and hardly minded this. The little company advanced with caution, nobody desiring to run into an ambush. Soon the firing on the right reached their ears, and they knew that some sort of an engagement was on. Then came a halt, and presently the darkness of night fell over them; and they went into camp beside a tiny watercourse flowing into a good-sized stream which separated the expedition from the outskirts of Santa Cruz.
Supper disposed of, Larry and Luke Striker took a stroll forward, to find out what the firing line was really doing and if the insurgents were in front in force. "We may have a bigger fight on hand nor any of us expect," suggested the old Yankee gunner.
"You can trust General Lawton not to run his head into the lion's mouth," returned Larry. "A soldier who has whipped the Apache Indians isn't going to suffer any surprise at the hands of these Tagals, no matter how wily they are."
"Don't be too sure o' thet, Larry. The best on us make mistakes sometimes," answered the Yankee, with a grave shake of his head. But General Lawton made no mistake, as we shall speedily see.
As has been said, the right wing had become detached from the main body of the expedition during the fight on the hill back of Santa Cruz. The firing line of this wing had not yet united with the centre, consequently there was a gap of over a quarter of a mile in the front. Had the Tagalogs known of this they might have divided the expedition and surrounded the right wing completely, but they did not know, so the temporary separation did na damage to the soldiers. But that gap brought a good bit of trouble to Larry and his friend.
On and on went the pair, down a narrow road lined on either side with palms and plantains and sweet-smelling shrubs. From the hollows the frogs croaked dismally, and here and there a night bird uttered its lonely cry, but otherwise all was silent.
"Humph, they've pushed the firing line ahead further than I thought," remarked Luke, after half a mile had been covered. "Here's a small river. Do ye reckon as how they went over thet, lad?"
"It must be so," answered the boy. "Certainly, we haven't been challenged."
Crossing the rude bridge, they found that the road made a sharp turn to the southward. Beyond was a nipa hut, back of which burnt a small campfire. Both hut and fire seemed deserted.
"They have cleaned the rebels out from there," said Larry. "Come ahead," and they continued on their way, little dreaming of the trap into which they were walking.
The nipa hut passed, they came to a tall fence built of bamboo stalks, sharpened at the tops and bound with native rope-vine. Farther on still were a dozen shelters, and here could be seen several women and children sitting in the doorways.
"Perhaps they can give us some information," said Larry, as they approached the natives. As soon as they saw the Americans the children shrieked dismally and rushed out of sight. But the women held their ground, feeling that they would not be molested.
"See anything of our soldiers?" demanded Luke of the women, but one and all shook their heads. "No Englees talk," mumbled one, meaning they did not understand or speak our tongue.
The natives' manner made Larry suspicious, and he glanced around hurriedly. As he did so there was a click of a trigger from behind the bamboo fence.
"Americanos surrender," came in bad English from back of the fence. "Surrender quick, or we shoot both dead on the spot!"