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Chapter 28 - The Rifle Rangers by Mayne Reid

A Foolhardy Adventure

At night Raoul and I, disguised in the leathern dresses of two rancheros, stole round the lines, and reached Punta Hornos, a point beyond our own pickets. Here we “took the water”, wading waist-deep.

This was about ten o’clock. The tide was just setting out, and the night, by good fortune, was as dark as pitch.

As the swell rolled in we were buried to the neck, and when it rolled back again we bent forward; so that at no time could much of our bodies be seen above the surface.

In this manner, half wading, half swimming, we kept up to the town.

It was a toilsome journey, but the water was warm, and the sand on the bottom firm and level. We were strengthened—I at least—by hope and the knowledge of danger. Doubtless my companion felt the latter stimulant as much as I.

We soon reached the battlements of Santiago, where we proceeded with increased caution. We could see the sentry up against the sky, pacing along the parapet. His shrill cry startled us. We thought we had been discovered. The darkness alone prevented this.

At length we passed him, and came opposite the city, whose battlements rested upon the water’s edge.

The tide was at ebb, and a bed of black, weed-covered rocks lay between the sea and the bastion.

We approached these with caution, and, crawling over the slippery boulders, after a hundred yards or so found ourselves in the entrance of one of the conductors.

Here we halted to rest ourselves, sitting down upon a ledge of rock. We were in no more danger here than in our own tents, yet within twenty feet were men who, had they known our proximity, would have strung us up like a pair of dogs.

But our danger was far from lying at this end of the adventure.

After a rest of half an hour we kept up into the conductor. My companion seemed perfectly at home in this subterranean passage, walking along as boldly as if it had been brilliantly lighted with gas.

After proceeding some distance we approached a grating, where a light shot in from above.

“Can we pass out here?” I inquired.

“Not yet, Captain,” answered Raoul in a whisper. “Farther on.”

We passed the grating, then another and another, and at length reached one where only a feeble ray struggled downward through the bars.

Here my guide stopped, and listened attentively for several minutes. Then, stretching out his hand, he undid the fastening of the grate, and silently turned it upon its hinge. He next swung himself up until his head projected above ground. In this position he again listened, looking cautiously on all sides.

Satisfied at length that there was no one near, he drew his body up through the grating and disappeared. After a short interval he returned, and called down:

“Come, Captain.”

I swung myself up to the street. Raoul shut down the trap with care.

“Take marks, Captain,” whispered he; “we may get separated.”

It was a dismal suburb. No living thing was apparent, with the exception of a gang of prowling dogs, lean and savage, as all dogs are during a siege. An image, decked in all the glare of gaud and tinsel, looked out of a glazed niche in the opposite wall. A dim lamp burned at its feet, showing to the charitable a receptacle for their offerings. A quaint old steeple loomed in the darkness overhead.

“What church?” I asked Raoul.

“La Magdalena.”

“That will do. Now onward.”

“Buenas noches, Señor!” (good-night) said Raoul to a soldier who passed us, wrapped in his great-coat.

“Buenas noches!” returned the man in a gruff voice.

We stole cautiously along the streets, keeping in the darker ones to avoid observation. The citizens were mostly in their beds; but groups of soldiers were straggling about, and patrols met us at every corner.

It became necessary to pass through one of the streets that was brilliantly lighted. When about half-way up it a fellow came swinging along, and, noticing our strange appearance, stopped and looked after us.

Our dresses, as I have said, were of leather; our calzoneros, as well as jackets, were shining with the sea-water, and dripping upon the pavement at every step.

Before we could walk beyond reach, the man shouted out:

“Carajo! caballeros, why don’t you strip before entering the baño?”

“What is it?” cried a soldier, coming up and stopping us.

A group of his comrades joined him, and we were hurried into the light.

“Mil diablos!” exclaimed one of the soldiers, recognising Raoul; “our old friend the Frenchman! Parlez-vous français, Monsieur?”

“Spies!” cried another.

“Arrest them!” shouted a sergeant of the guard, at the moment coming up with a patrol, and we were both jumped upon and held by about a dozen men.

In vain Raoul protested our innocence, declaring that we were only two poor fishermen, who had wet our clothes in drawing the nets.

“It’s not a fisherman’s costume, Monsieur,” said one.

“Fishermen don’t usually wear diamonds on their knuckles,” cried another, snatching a ring from my finger.

On this ring, inside the circlet, were engraven my name and rank!

Several men, now coming forward, recognised Raoul, and stated, moreover, that he had been missing for some days.

“He must, therefore,” said they, “have been with the Yankees.”

We were soon handcuffed and marched off to the guard-prison. There we were closely searched, but nothing further was found, except my purse containing several gold eagles—an American coin that of itself would have been sufficient evidence to condemn me.

We were now heavily chained to each other, after which the guard left us to our thoughts. They could not have left us in much less agreeable companionship.

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