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Chapter 27 - The Rifle Rangers by Mayne Reid

A Disappointment and a New Plan

I overtook my companions as they were entering the woods. Clayley, who had been looking back from time to time, brushed alongside, as if wishing to enter into conversation.

“Hard work, Captain, to leave such quarters. By Jove! I could have stayed for ever.”

“Come, Clayley—you are in love.”

“Yes; they who live in glass houses—. Oh! if I could only speak the lingo as you do!”

I could not help smiling, for I had overheard him through the trees making the most he could of his partner’s broken English. I was curious to know how he had sped, and whether he had been as ‘quick upon the trigger’ as myself. My curiosity was soon relieved.

“I tell you, Captain,” he continued, “if I could only have talked it, I would have put the question on the spot. I did try to get a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ out of her; but she either couldn’t or wouldn’t understand me. It was all bad luck.”

“Could you not make her understand you? Surely she knows English enough for that?”

“I thought so too; but when I spoke about love she only laughed and slapped me on the face with her fan. Oh, no; the thing must be done in Spanish, that’s plain; and you see I am going to set about it in earnest. She loaned me these.”

Saying this, he pulled out of the crown of his foraging-cap a couple of small volumes, which I recognised as a Spanish grammar and dictionary. I could not resist laughing aloud.

“Comrade, you will find the best dictionary to be the lady herself.”

“That’s true; but how the deuce are we to get back again? A mule-hunt don’t happen every day.”

“I fancy there will be some difficulty in it.”

I had already thought of this. It was no easy matter to steal away from camp—one’s brother-officers are so solicitous about your appearance at drills and parades. Don Cosmé’s rancho was at least ten miles from the lines, and the road would not be the safest for the solitary lover. The prospect of frequent returns was not at all flattering.

“Can’t we steal out at night?” suggested Clayley. “I think we might mount half a dozen of our fellows, and do it snugly. What do you say, Captain?”

“Clayley, I cannot return without this brother. I have almost given my word to that effect.”

“You have? That is bad! I fear there is no prospect of getting him out as you propose.”

My companion’s prophetic foreboding proved but too correct, for on nearing the camp we were met by an aide-de-camp of the commander-in-chief, who informed me that, on that very morning, all communication between the foreign ships of war and the besieged city had been prohibited.

Don Cosmé’s journey, then, would be in vain. I explained this, advising him to return to his family.

“Do not make it known—say that some time is required, and you have left the matter in my hands. Be assured I shall be among the first to enter the city, and I shall find the boy, and bring him to his mother in safety.”

This was the only consolation I could offer.

“You are kind, Capitan—very kind; but I know that nothing can now be done. We can only hope and pray.”

The old man had dropped into a bent attitude, his countenance marked by the deepest melancholy.

Taking the Frenchman, Raoul, along with me, I rode back until I had placed him beyond the danger of the straggling plunderer, when we shook hands and parted. As he left me, I turned to look after him. He still sat in that attitude that betokens deep dejection, his shoulders bent forward over the neck of his mule, while he gazed vacantly on the path. My heart sank at the spectacle, and, sad and dispirited, I rode at a lagging pace towards the camp.

Not a shot had as yet been fired against the town, but our batteries were nearly perfected, and several mortars were mounted and ready to fling in their deadly missiles. I knew that every shot and shell would carry death into the devoted city, for there was not a point within its walls out of range of a ten-inch howitzer. Women and children must perish along with armed soldiers; and the boy—he, too, might be a victim. Would this be the tidings I should carry to his home? And how should I be received by her with such a tale upon my lips? Already had I sent back a sorrowing father.

“Is there no way to save him, Raoul?”

“Captain?” inquired the man, starting at the vehemence of my manner.

A sudden thought had occurred to me.

“Are you well acquainted with Vera Cruz?”

“I know every street, Captain.”

“Where do those arches lead that open from the sea? There is one on each side of the mole.”

I had observed these when visiting a friend, an officer of the navy, on board his ship.

“They are conductors, Captain, to carry off the overflow of the sea after a norther. They lead under the city, opening at various places. I have had the pleasure of passing through them.”

“Ha! How?”

“On a little smuggling expedition.”

“It is possible, then, to reach the town by these?”

“Nothing easier, unless they may have a guard at the mouth; but that is not likely. They would not dream of anyone’s making the attempt.”

“How would you like to make it?”

“If the Captain wishes it, I will bring him a bottle of eau-de-vie from the Café de Santa Anna.”

“I do not wish you to go alone. I would accompany you.”

“Think of it, Captain; there is risk for you in such an undertaking. I may go safely. No one knows that I have joined you, I believe. If you are taken—.”

“Yes, yes; I know well the result.”

“The risk is not great, either,” continued the Frenchman, in a half-soliloquy. “Disguised as Mexicans, we might do it; you speak the language as well as I. If you wish it, Captain—.”

“I do.”

“I am ready, then.”

I knew the fellow well: one of those dare-devil spirits, ready for anything that promised adventure—a child of fortune—a stray waif tumbling about upon the waves of chance—gifted with head and heart of no common order—ignorant of books, yet educated in experience. There was a dash of the heroic in his character that had won my admiration, and I was fond of his company.

It was a desperate adventure—I knew that; but I felt stronger interest than common in the fate of this boy. My own future fate, too, was in a great degree connected with his safety. There was something in the very danger that lured me on to tempt it. I felt that it would be adding another chapter to a life which I have termed “adventurous.”

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