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Chapter 3 - The Rifle Rangers by Mayne Reid

A Volunteer Rendezvous

“Now, Cap,” said Lincoln, as we seated ourselves at the table of a café, “I’ll answer t’other question yur put last night. I wur up on the head of Arkansaw, an’ hearin’ they wur raisin’ volunteers down hyur, I kim down ter jine. It ain’t often I trouble the settlements; but I’ve a mighty puncheon, as the Frenchmen says, to hev a crack at them yeller-bellies. I hain’t forgot a mean trick they sarved me two yeern ago, up thar by Santer Fé.”

“And so you have joined the volunteers?”

“That’s sartin. But why ain’t you a-gwine to Mexico? That ’ere’s a wonder to me, cap, why you ain’t. Thur’s a mighty grist o’ venturin’, I heern; beats Injun fightin’ all holler, an’ yur jest the beaver I’d ’spect to find in that ’ar dam. Why don’t you go?”

“So I purposed long since, and wrote on to Washington for a commission; but the government seems to have forgotten me.”

“Dod rot the government! git a commission for yourself.”

“How?” I asked.

“Jine us, an’ be illected—thet’s how.”

This had crossed my mind before; but, believing myself a stranger among these volunteers, I had given up the idea. Once joined, he who failed in being elected an officer was fated to shoulder a firelock. It was neck or nothing then. Lincoln set things in a new light. They were strangers to each other, he affirmed, and my chances of being elected would therefore be as good as any man’s.

“I’ll tell yur what it is,” said he; “yur kin turn with me ter the rendevooz, an’ see for yurself; but if ye’ll only jine, an’ licker freely, I’ll lay a pack o’ beaver agin the skin of a mink that they’ll illect ye captain of the company.”

“Even a lieutenancy,” I interposed.

“Ne’er a bit of it, cap. Go the big figger. ’Tain’t more nor yur entitled to. I kin git yur a good heist among some hunters thet’s thur; but thar’s a buffalo drove o’ them parleyvoos, an’ a feller among ’em, one of these hyur creeholes, that’s been a-showin’ off and fencin’ with a pair of skewers from mornin’ till night. I’d be dog-gone glad to see the starch taken out o’ that feller.”

I took my resolution. In half an hour after I was standing in a large hall or armoury. It was the rendezvous of the volunteers, nearly all of whom were present; and perhaps a more variegated assemblage was never grouped together. Every nationality seemed to have its representative; and for variety of language the company might have rivalled the masons of Babel.

Near the head of the room was a table, upon which lay a large parchment, covered with signatures. I added mine to the list. In the act I had staked my liberty. It was an oath.

“These are my rivals—the candidates for office,” thought I, looking at a group who stood near the table. They were men of better appearance than the hoi polloi. Some of them already affected a half-undress uniform, and most wore forage-caps with glazed covers, and army buttons over the ears.

“Ha! Clayley!” said I, recognising an old acquaintance. This was a young cotton-planter—a free, dashing spirit,—who had sacrificed a fortune at the shrines of Momus and Bacchus.

“Why, Haller, old fellow! glad to see you. How have you been? Think of going with us?”

“Yes, I have signed. Who is that man?”

“He’s a Creole; his name is Dubrosc.”

It was a face purely Norman, and one that would halt the wandering eye in any collection. Of oval outline, framed by a profusion of black hair, wavy and perfumed. A round black eye, spanned by brows arching and glossy. Whiskers that belonged rather to the chin, leaving bare the jawbone, expressive of firmness and resolve. Firm thin lips, handsomely moustached; when parted, displaying teeth well set and of dazzling whiteness. A face that might be called beautiful; and yet its beauty was of that negative order which we admire in the serpent and the pard. The smile was cynical; the eye cold, yet bright; but the brightness was altogether animal—more the light of instinct than intellect. A face that presented in its expression a strange admixture of the lovely and the hideous—physically fair, morally dark—beautiful, yet brutal!

From some undefinable cause, I at once conceived for this man a strange feeling of dislike. It was he of whom Lincoln had spoken, and who was likely to be my rival for the captaincy. Was it this that rendered him repulsive? No. There was a cause beyond. In him I recognised one of those abandoned natures who shrink from all honest labour, and live upon the sacrificial fondness of some weak being who has been enslaved by their personal attractions. There are many such. I have met them in the jardins of Paris; in the casinos of London; in the cafés of Havanna, and the “quadroon” balls of New Orleans—everywhere in the crowded haunts of the world. I have met them with an instinct of loathing—an instinct of antagonism.

“The fellow is likely to be our captain,” whispered Clayley, noticing that I observed the man with more than ordinary attention. “By the way,” continued he, “I don’t half like it. I believe he’s an infernal scoundrel.”

“Such are my impressions. But if that be his character, how can he be elected?”

“Oh! no one here knows another; and this fellow is a splendid swordsman, like all the Creoles, you know. He has used the trick to advantage, and has created an impression. By the by, now I recollect, you are no slouch at that yourself. What are you up for?”

“Captain,” I replied.

“Good! Then we must go the ‘whole hog’ in your favour. I have put in for the first lieutenancy, so we won’t run foul of each other. Let us ‘hitch teams’.”

“With all my heart,” said I.

“You came in with that long-bearded hunter. Is he your friend?”

“He is.”

“Then I can tell you that among these fellows he’s a ‘whole team, and a cross dog under the waggon’ to boot. See him! he’s at it already.”

I had noticed Lincoln in conversation with several leather-legging gentry like himself, whom I knew from their costume and appearance to be backwoodsmen. All at once these saturnine characters commenced moving about the room, and entering into conversation with men whom they had not hitherto deigned to notice.

“They are canvassing,” said Clayley.

Lincoln, brushing past, whispered in my ear, “Cap’n, I understan’ these hyur critters better’n you kin. Yer must mix among ’em—mix and licker—thet’s the idee.”

“Good advice,” said Clayley; “but if you could only take the shine out of that fellow at fencing, the thing’s done at once. By Jove! I think you might do it, Haller!”

“I have made up my mind to try, at all events.”

“Not until the last day—a few hours before the election.”

“You are right. It would be better to wait; I shall take your advice. In the meantime let us follow that of Lincoln—‘mix and licker’.”

“Ha! ha!” laughed Clayley; “let us come, boys,” he added, turning to a very thirsty-looking group, “let’s all take a ‘smile’. Here, Captain Haller! allow me to introduce you;” and the next moment I was introduced to a crowd of very seedy-looking gentlemen, and the moment after we were clinking glasses, and chatting as familiarly as if we had been friends of forty years’ standing.

During the next three days the enrolment continued, and the canvass was kept up with energy. The election was to take place on the evening of the fourth.

Meanwhile my dislike for my rival had been strengthened by closer observation; and, as is general in such cases, the feeling was reciprocal.

On the afternoon of the day in question we stood before each other, foil in hand, both of us nerved by an intense, though as yet unspoken, enmity. This had been observed by most of the spectators, who approached and formed a circle around us; all of them highly interested in the result—which, they knew, would be an index to the election.

The room was an armoury, and all kinds of weapons for military practice were kept in it. Each had helped himself to his foil. One of the weapons was without a button, and sharp enough to be dangerous in the hands of an angry man. I noticed that my antagonist had chosen this one.

“Your foil is not in order; it has lost the button, has it not?” I observed.

“Ah! monsieur, pardon. I did not perceive that.”

“A strange oversight,” muttered Clayley, with a significant glance.

The Frenchman returned the imperfect foil, and took another.

“Have you a choice, monsieur?” I inquired.

“No, thank you; I am satisfied.”

By this time every person in the rendezvous had come up, and waited with breathless anxiety. We stood face to face, more like two men about to engage in deadly duel than a pair of amateurs with blunt foils. My antagonist was evidently a practised swordsman. I could see that as he came to guard. As for myself, the small-sword exercise had been a foible of my college days, and for years I had not met my match at it; but just then I was out of practice.

We commenced unsteadily. Both were excited by unusual emotions, and our first thrusts were neither skilfully aimed nor parried. We fenced with the energy of anger, and the sparks crackled from the friction of the grazing steel. For several minutes it was a doubtful contest; but I grew cooler every instant, while a slight advantage I had gained irritated my adversary. At length, by a lucky hit, I succeeded in planting the button of my foil upon his cheek. A cheer greeted this, and I could hear the voice of Lincoln shouting out:

“Wal done, cap’n! Whooray for the mountain-men!” This added to the exasperation of the Frenchman, causing him to strike wilder than before; and I found no difficulty in repeating my former thrust. It was now a sure hit; and after a few passes I thrust my adversary for the third time, drawing blood. The cheer rang out louder than before. The Frenchman could no longer conceal his mortification; and, grasping his foil in both hands, he snapped it over his knee, with an oath. Then, muttering some word about “better weapons” and “another opportunity”, he strode off among the spectators. Two hours after the combat I was his captain. Clayley was elected first lieutenant, and in a week from that time the company was “mustered” into the service of the United States government, and armed and equipped as an independent corps of “Rifle Rangers”. On the 20th of January, 1847, a noble ship was bearing us over the blue water, toward the shores of a hostile land.

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