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Chapter 4 - The Rifle Rangers by Mayne Reid

Life on the Island of Lobos

After calling at Brazos Santiago, we were ordered to land upon the island of Lobos, fifty miles north of Vera Cruz. This was to be our “drill rendezvous.” We soon reached the island. Detachments from several regiments debarked together; the jungle was attacked; and in a few hours the green grove had disappeared, and in its place stood the white pyramids of canvas with their floating flags. It was the work of a day. When the sun rose over Lobos it was a desert isle, thickly covered with a jungle of mangrove, manzanel, and icaco trees, green as an emerald. How changed the scene! When the moon looked down upon this same islet it seemed as if a warlike city had sprung suddenly out of the sea, with a navy at anchor in front of its bannered walls!

In a few days six full regiments had encamped upon the hitherto uninhabited island, and nothing was heard but the voice of war.

These regiments were all “raw”; and my duty, with others, consisted in “licking them into shape”. It was drill, drill, from morning till night; and, by early tattoo, I was always glad to crawl into my tent and go to sleep—such sleep as a man can get among scorpions, lizards, and soldier-crabs; for the little islet seemed to have within its boundaries a specimen of every reptile that came safely out of the ark.

The 22nd of February being Washington’s birthday, I could not get to bed as usual. I was compelled to accept an invitation, obtained by Clayley, to the tent of Major Twing, where they were—using Clayley’s own words—“to have a night of it.”

After tattoo we set out for the major’s marquee, which lay near the centre of the islet, in a coppice of caoutchouc-trees. We had no difficulty in finding it, guided by the jingling of glasses and the mingling of many voices in boisterous laughter.

As we came near, we could perceive that the marquee had been enlarged by tucking up the flaps in front, with the addition of a fly stretched over an extra ridge-pole. Several pieces of rough plank, spirited away from the ship, resting upon empty bread-barrels, formed the table. Upon this might be recognised every variety of bottles, glasses, and cups. Open boxes of sardines, piles of ship-biscuits, and segments of cheese filled the intervening spaces. Freshly-drawn corks and glistening fragments of lead were strewed around, while a number of dark conical objects under the table told that not a few champagne bottles were already “down among the dead men.”

On each side of the table was a row of colonels, captains, subalterns, and doctors seated without regard to rank or age, according to the order in which they had “dropped in”. There were also some naval officers, and a sprinkling of strange, half-sailor-looking men, the skippers of transport brigs, steamboats, etcetera; for Twing for a thorough republican in his entertainments; besides, the day levelled all distinctions.

At the head of the table was the major himself, who always carried a large pewter flask suspended from his shoulders by a green string, and without this flask no one ever saw Major Twing. He could not have stuck to it more closely had it been his badge of rank. It was not unusual, on the route, to hear some wearied officer exclaim, “If I only had a pull at old Twing’s pewter!” and “equal to Twing’s flask” was an expression which stamped the quality of any liquor as superfine. Such was one of the major’s peculiarities, though by no means the only one.

As my friend and I made our appearance under the fly, the company was in high glee, everyone enjoying himself with that freedom from restraint of rank peculiar to the American army-service. Clayley was a great favourite with the major, and at once caught his eye.

“Ha, Clayley! that you? Walk in with your friend. Find seats there, gentlemen.”

“Captain Haller—Major Twing,” said Clayley, introducing me.

“Happy to know you, Captain. Can you find seats there? No. Come up this way. Cudjo, boy! run over to Colonel Marshall’s tent, and steal a couple of stools. Adge, twist the neck off that bottle. Where’s the screw? Hang that screw! Where is it anyhow?”

“Never mind the screw, Mage,” cried the adjutant; “I’ve got a patent universal here.” So saying, this gentleman held out a champagne bottle in his left hand, and with a down-stroke of his right cut the neck off, as square as if it had been filed.

“Nate!” ejaculated Hennessy, an Irish officer, who sat near the head of the table, and who evidently admired that sort of thing.

“What we call a Kentucky corkscrew,” said the adjutant coolly. “It offers a double advantage. It saves time, and you got the wine clear of—”

“My respects, gentlemen! Captain Haller—Mr Clayley.”

“Thank you, Major Twing. To you, sir.”

“Ha! the stools at last! Only one! Come, gentlemen, squeeze yourselves up this way. Here, Clayley, old boy; here’s a cartridge-box. Adge! up-end that box. So—give us your fist, old fellow; how are you? Sit down, Captain; sit down. Cigars, there!”

At that moment the report of a musket was heard without the tent, and simultaneously a bullet whistled through the canvas. It knocked the foraging-cap from the head of Captain Hennessy, and, striking a decanter, shivered the glass into a thousand pieces!

“A nate shot that, I don’t care who fired it,” said Hennessy, coolly picking up his cap. “An inch of a miss—good as a mile,” added he, thrusting his thumb into the bullet-hole.

By this time every officer present was upon his feet, most of them rushing towards the front of the marquee. A dozen voices called out together:

“Who fired that gun?”

There was no answer, and several plunged into the thicket in pursuit. The chaparral was dark and silent, and these returned after a fruitless search.

“Some soldier, whose musket has gone off by accident,” suggested Colonel Harding. “The fellow has run away, to avoid being put under arrest.”

“Come, gentlemen, take your sates again,” said Hennessy; “let the poor divil slide—yez may be thankful it wasn’t a shell.”

“You, Captain, have most cause to be grateful for the character of the missile.”

“By my sowl, I don’t know about that!—a shell or a twenty-four would have grazed me all the same; but a big shot would have been mighty inconvanient to the head of my friend Haller, here!”

This was true. My head was nearly in range; and had the shot been a large one, it would have struck me upon the left temple. As it was, I felt the “wind” of the bullet, and already began to suffer a painful sensation over the eye.

“I’m mighty curious to know which of us the fellow has missed, Captain,” said Hennessy, turning to me as he spoke.

“If it were not a ‘bull’ I should say I hope neither of us. I’m inclined to think, with Colonel Harding, that it was altogether an accident.”

“By the powers! an ugly accident too, that has spoiled five dollars’ worth of an illigant cap, and a pint of as good brandy as ever was mixed with hot water and lemon-juice.”

“Plenty left, Captain,” cried the major. “Come, gentlemen, don’t let this damp us; fill up! till up! Adge, out with the corks! Cudjo, where’s the screw?”

“Never mind the screw, Mage,” cried the adjutant, repeating his old trick upon the neck of a fresh bottle, which, nipped off under the wire, fell upon a heap of others that had preceded it.

And the wine again foamed and sparkled, and glasses circled round, and the noisy revelry waxed as loud as ever. The incident of the shot was soon forgotten. Songs were sung, and stories told, and toasts drunk; and with song and sentiment, and toast and story, and the wild excitement of wit and wine, the night waned away. With many of those young hearts, old with hope and burning with ambition, it was the last “Twenty-second” they would ever celebrate. Half of them never hailed another.

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