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Chapter 32 - The Rifle Rangers by Mayne Reid

A Blind Ride

We rode all night. The mule-blinds, although preventing us from seeing a single object, proved to be an advantage. They saved our eyes and faces from the thorny claws of the acacia and mezquite. Without hands to fend them off, these would have torn us badly, as we could feel them, from time to time, penetrating even the hard leather of the tapojos. Our thongs chafed us, and we suffered great pain from the monotonous motion. Our road lay through thick woods. This we could perceive from the constant rustle of the leaves and the crackling of branches, as the cavalcade passed on.

Towards morning our route led over hills, steep and difficult, we could tell from the attitudes of our animals. We had passed the level plains, and were entering among the “foothills” of the Mexican mountains. There was no passing or repassing of one another. From this I concluded that we were journeying along a narrow road, and in single file.

Raoul was directly in front of me, and we could converse at times.

“Where do you think they are taking us, Raoul?” I inquired, speaking in French.

“To Cenobio’s hacienda. I hope so, at least!”

“Why do you hope so?”

“Because we shall stand some chance for our lives. Cenobio is a noble fellow.”

“You know him, then?”

“Yes, Captain; I have helped him a little in the contraband trade.”

“A smuggler, is he?”

“Why, in this country it is hardly fair to call it by so harsh a name, as the Government itself dips out of the same dish. Smuggling here, as in most other countries, should be looked upon rather as the offspring of necessity and maladministration than as a vice in itself. Cenobio is a contrabandisto, and upon a large scale.”

“And you are a political philosopher, Raoul!”

“Bah! Captain; it would be bad if I could not defend my own calling,” replied my comrade, with a laugh.

“You think, then, that we are in the hands of Cenobio’s men.”

“I am sure of it, Captain. Sacre! had it been Jarauta’s band, we would have been in heaven—that is, our souls—and our bodies would now be embellishing some of the trees upon Don Cosmé’s plantation. Heaven protect us from Jarauta! The robber-priest gives but short shrift to any of his enemies; but if he could lay his hands on your humble servant, you would see hanging done in double-quick time.”

“Why think you we are with Cenobio’s guerilla?”

“I know Yañez, whom we saw at the rancho. He is one of Cenobio’s officers, and the leader of this party, which is only a detachment. I am rather surprised that he has brought us away, considering that Dubrosc is with him; there must have been some influence in our favour which I cannot understand.”

I was struck by the remark, and began to reflect upon it in silence. The voice of the Frenchman again fell upon my ear.

“I cannot be mistaken. No—this hill—it runs down to the San Juan River.”

Again, after a short interval, as we felt ourselves fording a stream, Raoul said:

“Yes, the San Juan—I know the stony bottom—just the depth, too, at this season.”

Our mules plunged through the swift current, flinging the spray over our heads. We could feel the water up to the saddle-flaps, cold as ice; and yet we were journeying in the hot tropic. But we were fording a stream fed by the snows of Orizava.

“Now I am certain of the road,” continued Raoul, after we had crossed. “I know this bank well. The mule slides. Look out, Captain.”

“For what?” I asked, with some anxiety.

The Frenchman laughed as he replied:

“I believe I am taking leave of my senses. I called to you to look out, as if you had the power to help yourself in case the accident should occur.”

“What accidents?” I inquired, with a nervous sense of some impending danger.

“Falling over: we are on a precipice that is reckoned dangerous on account of the clay; if your mule should stumble here, the first thing you would strike would be the branches of some trees five hundred feet below, or thereabout.”

“Good heaven!” I ejaculated; “is it so?”

“Never fear, Captain; there is not much danger. These mules appear to be sure-footed; and certainly,” he added, with a laugh, “their loads are well packed and tied.”

I was in no condition just then to relish a joke, and my companion’s humour was completely thrown away upon me. The thought of my mule missing his foot and tumbling over a precipice, while I was stuck to him like a centaur, was anything else than pleasant. I had heard of such accidents, and the knowledge did not make the reflection any easier. I could not help muttering to myself:

“Why, in the name of mischief, did the fellow tell me this till we had passed it?”

I crouched closer to the saddle, allowing my limbs to follow every motion of the animal, lest some counteracting shock might disturb our joint equilibrium. I could hear the torrent, as it roared and hissed far below, appearing directly under us; and the “sough” grew fainter and fainter as we ascended.

On we went, climbing up—up—up; our strong mules straining against the precipitous path. It was daybreak. There was a faint glimmer of light under our tapojos. At length we could perceive a brighter beam. We felt a sudden glow of heat over our bodies; the air seemed lighter; our mules walked on a horizontal path. We were on the ridge, and warmed by the beams of the rising sun.

“Thank heaven we have passed it!”

I could not help feeling thus: and yet perhaps we were riding to an ignominious death!

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