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A Midnight Reconnaissance in the Philippines.

“Carabao Bill,” from his dress and manner, might be said to be a typical United States Army officer. His figure would probably fall short of the standard, but he was no less strong and healthy than his brother knights of the sword. His strength was more to be compared to that patient animal after which he was nick-named, the mighty carabao, but he lacked the grace of form and dignity of bearing that the average wearer of shoulder-straps in Uncle Sam’s army is supposed to possess.

The soldiers said he waltzed like a cow and walked like a camel moving one corner at a time which was indeed a graphic way of describing his movements.

William Van Osdol was his name, and he was a second lieutenant in the th Infantry. After several months of hard service in the Philippines he earned for himself the unenviable sobriquet of “Carabao Bill,” because his awkward movements, ox-like strength, and slow but sure gait were so much like the sturdy animal that formed our “cracker line” that that name could not but suggest itself.

In Cuba he served as a sergeant in one of the regular infantry regiments. He was the proud possessor of a bayonet scabbard, several times punctured by Mauser bullets, which he had worn in the charge up San Juan Hill. It was for “gallant and meritorious conduct” during this fight that won for him the recommendation for commissioned rank; and it was but shortly after he had returned from fever-ridden Santiago, when in the hospital at Montauk Point, that the much-coveted document, making him an officer in the United States Army, reached him.

Van Osdol was a born fighter. The set of his lower jaw and the quick snap of his light blue eyes left nothing to be guessed at on that line. While he was not a picturesque nor dashing officer, yet his heavy growth of fiery red locks was ever to be seen in the front of the fight and seldom under cover. An Irish corporal, who had once fallen a victim to his disciplining, declared, “The sorril-topped lootenint hain’t brains ’nuff to git scart,” but this was not true. While not a man renowned for brilliancy of intellect, yet he was a level-headed thinker whose judgment was always good on minor matters. He was frequently selected to conduct scouting expeditions where good “horse sense” and nerve were much more expedient than a superabundance of gray matter abnormally developed with theories of fine tactics and maneuvers.

When the th Infantry, to which he belonged, was doing duty at a convent some fifty or sixty miles from Manila, on the Manila and Dagupan Railroad, the Tagalos gave the usual annoyance. Their threatenings and feeble attacks came mostly from the west, but as the rainy season approached the torrential showers soon flooded that vicinity, so they changed their base of harassing to a village of bamboo and nipa palm huts on the further side of a river running parallel to the American outpost line on the south, about five thousand yards away. The intervening ground was taken up with rice paddies, banana groves, cogonales, or tall grass, and occasionally a bamboo jungle.

The rebels had no sooner occupied this new position, than they began to entrench, take possession of the huts, and make themselves comfortable in other ways, giving promise to make matters lively for our troops the rainy season.

They were frequently reenforced, greater activity was seen among them, and their boldness was unprecedented. Some days, when the tropical sun was beating down its sweltering rays, and our men were seeking every vestige of shade, the pesky little Filipinos would suddenly emerge into the open rice-field, deploy into line of skirmishers, and advance in a most threatening manner toward the American lines.

The outposts would become alarmed and call for the regiment to support them. Out the companies would rush at double-time, amid swearing and sweat. When the deployments were made and all was ready to receive the dusky foe, he would suddenly face about before he had approached within effective rifle-range. The regiment’s orders were to hold the convent; consequently the enemy could not be pursued beyond the outposts’ limits.

One morning during the latter part of July, 1899, it was observed that there were no signs of the festive “gugus” in the accustomed place. No smoke; no outposts; no soldiers in short white pants and wide brimmed sombreros. This was an unusual thing for, while Aguinaldo’s men were never known to hold a position against the mad attacks of our boys in blue, the voluntary abandonment of their works was an unheard-of proceeding.

Treachery, or the same thing, Filipino strategy, was strongly suspected. They were playing some game, and the senior officer at the convent determined to learn the trump.

Just as the shades of evening began to gather, on the day when the Tagalos made their mysterious disappearance, “Carabao Bill,” who was in command of his company on outpost, and had it quartered in a church which had once been held by the natives and abandoned under pressure, turned out his men to do the daily police. While he was busy reprimanding a private, who was noted for laziness and shirking his duty, and had just been adding to his reputation for such, a battalion adjutant, a tall and handsome fellow with a slight partiality for legs, came dashing up on a native pony. His knees were bent and elevated toward his chin in order that his pedal extremities might not collide with the frail limbs of his steaming mount.

Owing to the shortness of his stirrup-straps, he dismounted rather ungracefully, but soon gathered himself into military shape and smartly saluted “Bill,” saying: “Sir, the Commanding Officer presents his compliments and directs that at twelve o’clock to-night you take a non-commissioned officer and fourteen privates of your company and make a thorough reconnaissance of the grounds between here and the enemy’s position on the south, and determine if possible their whereabouts, strength, and probable intention; and report to him immediately on your return.”

His message delivered, the dashing young officer remounted and rode rapidly back to headquarters.

Van Osdol slowly ran his freckled fingers through his auburn locks, and gave a shrill whistle, his signal for his first sergeant to report to him. That worthy of multitudinous duties immediately appeared and received orders to arrange the detail for the reconnaissance duty.

The night was blindingly dark. There was a density to the darkness that almost excluded the penetration of thought. The mind could pass no farther than the immediate vicinity. Since the sun had set a thick layer of clouds had lined the canopy of heaven, veiling the winks of the brightest stars and the benignant light of the moon.

Sergeant Schriner, with soldierly punctuality, reported with the detail just as the sentry over the rifle-stacks at the church called in a subdued voice the hour of twelve.

The little party promptly started on its hazardous mission, feeling its way through the matted bamboo jungles fringing the station the officer leading, the sergeant and men following in “goose formation,” single-file; each keeping in touch with the person before him.

The advance was slow, for during the day the border around the place was almost impenetrable the darkness served to multiply the difficulties.

It was a night to try men’s souls. Bolo parties frequently lay in ambush in these places of perfect hiding, and suddenly pounced upon the unsuspecting Americanos, and cut them to pieces before a hand could be raised in defense.

Or there was the possibility of receiving a volley at close range; for it was known that at night the Tagalos invariably approached nearer our lines. Since they had so mysteriously disappeared during the day, there was a strong probability that they would take up a new position that night. Where, no one knew.

Lonely huts, amid vines and bamboo, that had been deserted when the place fell into our hands, were frequently passed. A half-starved dog, that had refused to follow its master from home, set up a mournful howl that tended to chill the marrow in the bones. The very silence was appalling. The breaking of a twig was as the discharge of a rifle. The lightest footfall resounded in the distance. To the party it seemed their shoes were of iron and the earth a ringing plate of steel.

After a hard struggle with Nature’s obstacles, and many halts to locate and determine the cause of suspicious noises, the little band finally emerged from the dense undergrowth into an open field. Almost simultaneously with the entrance into this open space there was a slight break in the clouds, and through the crevice the moon and stars gave sparingly of their light.

The men were now deployed into line of skirmishers, and moved slowly and cautiously forward. There was just sufficient light to cause the imagination to see an enemy behind every rice-dyke or bunch of grass.

The advance was made to within 150 paces of the river, when a halt was made. A vague outline of the village and trenches could be seen. Someone saw the dim figure of a rebel sentry. All eyes were turned on the spot, but he remained as fixed as the stars.

Van Osdol decided to go alone to investigate the trenches and village, for in doing this there would be less danger of detection.

The Sergeant remained behind to take command of the detachment. The intrepid officer, with revolver in hand, went on his way toward the river. His advance was slow only a few feet at a time, then he would stop, lower his head to the ground, and listen intently.

Now the trenches loomed up before him not more than fifty yards away. He strained his eyes in effort to see some signs of a living occupant, but nothing save the fanning of the giant leaves of the banana, and the waving of the tall grass under the gentle breeze of the south wind, was seen to move. There was reigning the stillness of death that awful omen of lurking danger. A few feet further he wormed his way, now crawling on all fours. Just in front of him was a foot-bridge across the river, made of a single stringer of poles and a hand-rail with which to balance the body.

Over this bridge he began to cross. Not more than two short steps were taken when he heard a low, whistling sound. He halted instantly, squatted on his haunches beneath the hand-rail, and listened, as fixed as a statue. The whistling was repeated; this time nearer, but the direction indefinite.

Was it the signal of an alarmed sentry, or was it one of the many nocturnal noises which the Island of Luzon produces?

Another low whistle this time nearer; then the speaking of that instinct that tells us of the presence of human beings in the blackness of the night.

He slowly faced about. There within four feet of him, crouching upon the ground near the water’s edge, was a man with a rifle in his hand. Quick as a flash he threw the muzzle of his revolver in his face remembering his surroundings, he never fired or uttered a word.

Struggling between a whisper and a low talk, breathless through, fear, came the words of Private Holmes: “For God’s sake, don’t shoot, Lieutenant; it’s me.”

The officer lowered his revolver and beckoned the man to draw nearer.

With his mouth to the Lieutenant’s ear, the soldier told that the men left behind had seen a number of moving figures in the village and trenches, not twenty-five yards away from where they were then crouching; and that he had been sent to warn his officer of his danger.

Here is where it tried the steel of “Carabao Bill.”

The two kept their positions, scarcely daring to breathe lest they be heard. A plan of operations soon formed in the mind of the resourceful young officer. He whispered to Holmes to return and have the Sergeant hold his men in readiness, with magazines filled, for an emergency should he need them.

Before Holmes had covered half the distance between the Lieutenant and the men, there was the sound as the cocking of a rifle; a second later came the flash and sharp report of a Mauser. True to his training, the soldier fell to the ground and lay motionless.

By the light of the flash Van Osdol saw the black face of the Filipino sentry who had fired.

Soon began that mumbling, chattering, rattling noise that an alarmed camp alone produces. The shrill commands of the little officers in frantic endeavor to steady their men, the patter of many shoeless feet, the breaking of rifle-stacks, and the clanking of bayonets and swords, made a medley of camp music that was hideous to hear.

The alarm was soon quieted. The aroused men returned to their sleep, and soon all was again quiet. The sentry who had fired at Holmes made loud and emphatic assertions in the twangy language of the Tagalo of having seen something at which to fire, but he was disbelieved, his belt removed, deprived of his rifle, and another man put in his place.

This was pleasant for the squatting American officer on the bridge to behold.

After patiently waiting in deep suspense for more than half an hour, he noticed the substituted sentry stand his rifle against a tree and sit down. A moment later his head fell forward and he was asleep.

Determined to learn more of the enemy’s position and strength, “Carabao Bill,” inch by inch, silently slipped across the bridge and to the edge of the trench, a few yards to the left of the sleeping sentry. Here he made a rapid survey of the insurgent camp and position. Hundreds of them were lying stretched in sleep behind the shelter of the earthworks.

His mission accomplished, he slowly turned to the unconscious sentry, thinking to secure the Mauser rifle as a trophy of the trip; but he had no more than grabbed it when the man awoke with a start, and, like a flash, whipped out a shining bolo. Before the native had time to use his weapon, “Bill” raised the rifle above his head, and, with a powerful blow that resounded through the midnight air, sent him reeling over the trench among his slumbering companions. Then, with a shout that would tend to raise the dead, he began to empty his revolver into the rapidly awakening rebel soldiers below.

Quick-witted Sergeant Schriner had no sooner heard the blow of the rifle and the shout of his commanding officer, till he had taken in the situation.

He gave the order for a charge; and this small band of Uncle Sam’s men rushed like demons, screaming and yelling like maniacs, toward the little bridge then over it, and began to pour an awful, close-range fire into the confused mass of humanity beyond the trench.

The effect was magical. The drowsy enemy, taken unawares, routed and disorganized, beat a disgraceful retreat. In vain their officers tried to make them stand; but the thought uppermost in every man’s mind was how to get to a place of security in the quickest possible time.

In less time than it takes to tell it; there were no Filipinos on the scene of action, excepting the dead and wounded. The number of these, considering the darkness of the night, did credit to American marksmanship.

The sound of retreating feet was occasionally broken by the reports of a poorly directed volley by a few of the bolder characters, who had the rare nerve to halt and fire at the audacious “Yankees.”

The situation was ridiculous. Sixteen men had charged and taken a well-fortified position held by at least one thousand Tagalog.

The victors sat down on the bank of the river to talk and laugh over the adventure. Meanwhile, the terror-stricken followers of the misguided Aguinaldo were being rallied by their officers beyond the range of fire. They were now aware of the inferiority in numbers of the Americans.

To capture and hold the enemy’s works was not a part of Van Osdo’s instructions. Now realizing this, he decided to return and report. The men were called together, and the start began for the return.

But the bridge! In their wild advance over that frail structure it had been so shaken that it had fallen into the river and was washed away.

The stream was full to the banks and too deep to wade. Not a third of the men could swim it with their arms and accouterments. The rebels were every minute drawing nearer and intensifying their fire. They were truly between fire and water. There were no boats to be had nor could the time be taken to construct a raft of bamboo poles.

On came the howling, revengeful, murderous black devils, frenzied by their recent defeat by this inferior party. The leaders were frantically waving their swords over their heads, and shouting words of encouragement to their men; offering rewards to the first to reenter the trenches.

Our diminutive army was now on the defensive. They leaped into the ditch and began to take pot-shots at the more daring of the rapidly approaching mass, determined, to hold the place or die in the attempt indeed, there was no alternative.

They succeeded in arresting the van.

The enemy in turn sought shelter and began a fire that had results, for two Americans were soon rendered hors de combat; the trench not affording as good shelter from the side from which the insurgents were approaching as on the other side.

This long-range duel kept up for many minutes. Ammunition grew scarce and was finally exhausted, Van Osdol alone retaining loads in his revolver.

From the slackening of the American fire, the rebels soon became aware of their scarcity of cartridges, and again began a mad rush for the trenches.

Nothing remained for the bold little band to do but to meet them with the point of the bayonet and sell their lives at a precious price.

The unhurt members of the detachment rallied around their gallant leader with bayonets fixed. Now the foremost of the wildly rushing horde was within a hundred yards.

A brilliant thought struck Sergeant Schriner. He ran forward, grasped a Mauser near one of the rebels who had fallen when the trenches were taken, undid the belt of the lifeless owner, buckled it around his own waist, and returned to his comrades. All followed his example. With their own arms and ammunition the advance of the blood-thirsty enemy was again checked. With the newly acquired arms and ammunition the brave little band inflicted a decided injury to their would-be slayers. Now every shot was expended with the greatest caution.

Again the American fire slackened, and again the stubborn insurrectos rushed forward. At last the recently acquired belts were emptied. There was now no further hope.

With renewed shouting, and rending the air with their hideous screams, the twice-checked enemy came madly on. Once more the defenders rallied to meet their death together.

On a sudden the yells seemed a hundred times multiplied, and from the rear as well as front. Had they been surrounded? To the rear the shouts were rapidly drawing nearer, but it was not the sharp and broken yell of the Tagalo it was the familiar “Yankee yell”; that invincible, “gugu"-terrorizing “Yankee yell.”

Five hundred brave defenders of the stars and stripes had heard the first firing, when the trenches were taken, and immediately started to the rescue of their comrades.

Upon his return, “Carabao Bill” reported that he found the enemy.