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Chapter 29 - The Rifle Rangers by Mayne Reid

Help from Heaven

“I would not care a claco for my own life,” said Raoul, as the gate closed upon us, “but that you, Captain—hélas! hélas!” and the Frenchman groaned and sank upon the stone bench, dragging me down also.

I could offer no consolation. I knew that we should be tried as spies; and, if convicted—a result almost certain—we had not twenty hours to live. The thought that I had brought this brave fellow to such a fate enhanced the misery of my situation. To die thus ingloriously was bitter indeed. Three days ago I could have spent my life recklessly; but now, how changed were my feelings! I had found something worth living to enjoy; and to think I should never again—“Oh! I have become a coward!” I cursed my rashness bitterly.

We passed the night in vain attempts at mutual consolation. Even our present sufferings occupied us. Our clothes were wet through, and the night had become piercingly cold. Our bed was a bench of stone; and upon this we lay as our chains would allow us, sleeping close together to generate warmth. It was to us a miserable night; but morning came at last, and at an early hour we were examined by the officer of the guard.

Our court-martial was fixed for the afternoon, and before this tribunal we were carried, amidst the jeers of the populace. We told our story, giving the name of the boy Narcisso, and the house where he was lodged. This was verified by the court, but declared to be a ruse invented by my comrade—whose knowledge of the place and other circumstances rendered the thing probable enough. Raoul, moreover, was identified by many of the citizens, who proved his disappearance coincident with the landing of the American expedition. Besides, my ring and purse were sufficient of themselves to condemn us—and condemned we were. We were to be garrotted on the following morning!

Raoul was offered life if he would turn traitor and give information of the enemy. The brave soldier indignantly spurned the offer. It was extended to me, with a similar result.

All at once I observed a strange commotion among the people. Citizens and soldiers rushed from the hall, and the court, hastily pronouncing our sentence, ordered us to be carried away. We were seized by the guard, pulled into the street, and dragged back towards our late prison. Our conductors were evidently in a great hurry. As we passed along we were met by citizens running to and fro, apparently in great terror—women and children uttering shrieks and suddenly disappearing behind walls and battlements. Some fell upon their knees, beating their breasts and praying loudly. Others, clasping their infants, stood shivering and speechless.

“It is just like the way they go in an earthquake,” remarked Raoul, “but there is none. What can it be, Captain?”

Before I could reply, the answer came from another quarter.

Far above, an object was hissing and hurtling through the air.

“A shell from ours! Hurrah!” cried Raoul.

I could scarcely refrain from cheering, though we ourselves might be the victims of the missile.

The soldiers who were guarding us had flung themselves down behind walls and pillars, leaving us alone in the open street!

The bomb fell beyond us, and, striking the pavement, burst. The fragments went crashing through the side of an adjoining house; and the wail that came back told how well the iron messengers had done their work. This was the second shell that had been projected from the American mortars. The first had been equally destructive; and hence the extreme terror of both citizen and soldier. Every missile seemed charged with death.

Our guard now returned and dragged us onward, treating us with increased brutality. They were enraged at the exultation visible in our manner; and one, more ferocious than the rest, drove his bayonet into the fleshy part of my comrade’s thigh. After several like acts of inhumanity, we were thrown into our prison and locked up as before.

Since our capture we had tasted neither food nor drink, and hunger and thirst added to the misery of our situation.

The insult had maddened Raoul, and the pain of his wound now rendered him furious. He had not hands to touch it or dress it. Frenzied by anger and pain to a strength almost superhuman, he twisted off his iron manacles, as if they had been straws. This done, the chain that bound us together was soon broken, and our ankle “jewellery” followed.

“Let us live our last hours, Captain, as we have our lives, free and unfettered!”

I could not help admiring the spirit of my brave comrade.

We placed ourselves close to the door and listened.

We could hear the heavy cannonade all around, and now and then the distant shots from the American batteries. We would wait for the bursting of the bombs, and, as the hoarse thunder of crumbling walls reached our ears, Raoul would spring up, shouting his wild, half-French, half-Indian cries.

A thought occurred to me.

“We have arms, Raoul.” I held up the fragments of the heavy chain that had yoked us. “Could you reach the trap on a run, without the danger of mistaking your way?”

Raoul started.

“You are right, Captain—I can. It is barely possible they may visit us to-night. If so, any chance for life is better than none at all.”

By a tacit understanding each of us took a fragment of the chain—there were but two—and sat down by the door to be ready in case our guards should open it. We sat for over an hour, without exchanging a word. We could hear the shells as they burst upon the housetops, the crashing of torn timbers, and the rumbling of walls rolling over, struck by the heavy shot. We could hear the shouts of men and the wailing of women, with now and then a shriek louder than all others, as some missile carried death into the terror-struck crowd.

“Sacre!” said Raoul; “if they had only allowed us a couple of days, our friends would have opened these doors for us. Sacr–r–r–e!”

This last exclamation was uttered in a shriek. Simultaneously a heavy object burst through the roof, tearing the bricks and plaster, and falling with the ring of iron on the floor.

Then followed a deafening crash. The whole earth seemed to shake, and the whizzing of a thousand particles filled the air. A cloud of dust and lime, mixed with the smoke of sulphur, was around us. I gasped for breath, nearly suffocated. I endeavoured to cry out, but my voice, husky and coarse, was scarcely audible to myself. I succeeded at length in ejaculating:

“Raoul! Raoul!”

I heard the voice of my comrade, seemingly at a great distance. I threw out my arms and groped for him. He was close by me, but, like myself, choking for want of air.

“It was a shell,” said he, in a wheezing voice, “Are you hurt, Captain?”

“No,” I replied; “and you?”

“Sound as a bell—our luck is good—it must have struck every other part of the cell.”

“Better it had not missed us,” said I, after a pause; “we are only spared for the garrotte.”

“I am not so sure of that, Captain,” replied my companion, in a manner that seemed to imply he had still hopes of an escape.

“Where that shell came in,” he continued, “something else may go out. Let us see—was it the roof?”

“I think so.”

We groped our way hand in hand towards the centre of the room, looking upwards.

“Peste!” ejaculated Raoul; “I can’t see a foot before me—my eyes are filled—bah!”

So were mine. We stood waiting. The dust was gradually settling down, and we could perceive a faint glimmer from above. There was a large hole through the roof!

Slowly its outlines became defined, and we could see that it was large enough to pass the body of a man; but it was at least fourteen feet from the floor, and we had not timber enough to make a walking-stick!

“What is to be done? We are not cats, Raoul. We can never reach it!”

My comrade, without making a reply, lifted me up in his arms, telling me to climb. I mounted upon his shoulders, balancing myself like a Bedouin; but with my utmost stretch I could not touch the roof.

“Hold!” cried I, a thought striking me. “Let me down, Raoul. Now, if they will only give us a little time.”

“Never fear for them; they’ve enough to do taking care of their own yellow carcases.”

I had noticed that a beam of the roof formed one side of the break, and I proceeded to twist our handcuffs into a clamp, while Raoul peeled off his leather breeches and commenced, tearing them into strips. In ten minutes our “tackle” was ready, and, mounting upon my comrade’s shoulders, I flung it carefully at the beam. It failed to catch, and I came down to the floor, my balance being lost in the effort. I repeated the attempt. Again it failed, and I staggered down as before.

“Sacre!” cried Raoul through his teeth. The iron had struck him on the head.

“Come, we shall try and try—our lives depend upon it.”

The third attempt, according to popular superstition, should be successful. It was so with us. The clamp caught, and the string hung dangling downwards. Mounting again upon my comrade’s shoulders, I grasped the thong high up to test its hold. It was secure; and, cautioning Raoul to hold fast lest the hook might be detached by my vibration, I climbed up and seized hold of the beam. By this I was enabled to squeeze myself through the roof.

Once outside I crawled cautiously along the azotea, which, like all others in Spanish houses, was flat, and bordered by a low parapet of mason-work. I peeped over this parapet, looking down into the street. It was night, and I could see no one below; but up against the sky, upon distant battlements, I could distinguish armed soldiers busy around their guns. These blazed forth at intervals, throwing their sulphureous glare over the city.

I returned to assist Raoul, but, impatient of my delay, he had already mounted, and was dragging up the thong after him.

We crawled from roof to roof, looking for a dark spot to descend into the street. None of the houses in the range of our prison were more than one story high, and, after passing several, we let ourselves down into a narrow alley. It was still early, and the people were running to and fro, amidst the frightful scenes of the bombardment. The shrieks of women were in our ears, mingled with the shouts of men, the groans of the wounded, and the fierce yelling of an excited rabble. The constant whizzing of bombs filled the air, and parapets were hurled down. A round-shot struck the cupola of a church as we passed nearly under it, and the ornaments of ages came tumbling down, blocking up the thoroughfare. We clambered over the ruins and went on. There was no need of our crouching into dark shadows. No one thought of observing us now.

“We are near the house—will you still make the attempt to take him along?” inquired Raoul, referring to the boy Narcisso.

“By all means! Show me the place,” replied I, half-ashamed at having almost forgotten, in the midst of our own perils, the object of our enterprise.

Raoul pointed to a large house with portals and a great door in the centre.

“There, Captain—there it is.”

“Go under that shadow and wait. I shall be better alone.”

This was said in a whisper. My companion did as directed.

I approached the great door and knocked boldly.

“Quien?” cried the porter within the saguan.

“Yo,” I responded.

The door was opened slowly and with caution.

“Is the Señorito Narcisso within?” I inquired.

The man answered in the affirmative.

“Tell him a friend wishes to speak with him.”

After a moment’s hesitation the porter dragged himself lazily up the stone steps. In a few seconds the boy—a fine, bold-looking lad, whom I had seen during our trial—came leaping down. He started on recognising me.

“Hush!” I whispered, making signs to him to be silent. “Take leave of your friends, and meet me in ten minutes behind the church of La Magdalena.”

“Why, Señor,” inquired the boy without listening, “how have you got out of prison? I have just been to the governor on your behalf, and—.”

“No matter how,” I replied, interrupting him; “follow my directions—remember your mother and sisters are suffering.”

“I shall come,” said the boy resolutely.

“Hasta luego!” (Lose no time then). “Adios!”

We parted without another word. I rejoined Raoul, and we walked on towards La Magdalena. We passed through the street where we had been captured on the preceding night, but it was so altered that we should not have known it. Fragments of walls were thrown across the path, and here and there lay masses of bricks and mortar freshly torn down.

Neither patrol nor sentry thought of troubling us now, and our strange appearance did not strike the attention of the passengers.

We reached the church, and Raoul descended, leaving me to wait for the boy. The latter was true to his word, and his slight figure soon appeared rounding the corner. Without losing a moment we all three entered the subterranean passage, but the tide was still high, and we had to wait for the ebb. This came at length, and, clambering over the rocks, we entered the surf and waded as before. After an hour’s toil we reached Punta Hornos, and a little beyond this point I was enabled to hail one of our own pickets, and to pass the lines in safety.

At ten o’clock I was in my own tent—just twenty-four hours from the time I had left it, and, with the exception of Clayley, not one of my brother officers knew anything of our adventure.

Clayley and I agreed to “mount” a party the next night and carry the boy to his friends. This we accordingly did, stealing out of camp after tattoo. It would be impossible to describe the rejoicing of our new acquaintances—the gratitude lavishly expressed—the smiles of love that thanked us.

We should have repeated our visits almost nightly; but from that time the guerilleros swarmed in the back-country, and small parties of our men, straggling from camp, were cut off daily. It was necessary, therefore, for my friend and myself to chafe under a prudent impatience, and wait for the fall of Vera Cruz.

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