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Chapter 33 - The Rifle Rangers by Mayne Reid

A Drink à la Cheval

The guerilleros now halted and dismounted. We were left in our saddles. Our mules were picketed upon long lazos, and commenced browsing. They carried us under the thorny branches of the wild locust. The maguey, with its bill-shaped claws, had torn our uniform overalls to shreds. Our limbs were lacerated, and the cactus had lodged its poisoned prickles in our knees. But these were nothing to the pain of being compelled to keep our saddles, or rather saddle-trees—for we were upon the naked wood. Our hips ached intensely, and our limbs smarted under the chafing thong.

There was a crackling of fires around us. Our captors were cooking their breakfasts, and chattering gaily over their chocolate. Neither food nor drink was offered to us, although we were both thirsty and hungry. We were kept in this place for about an hour.

“They have joined another party here,” said Raoul, “with pack-mules.”

“How know you?” I inquired.

“I can tell by the shouts of the arrieros. Listen!—they are making ready to start.”

There was a mingling of voices—exclamations addressed to their animals by the arrieros, such as:

“Mula! anda! vaya! levantate! carrai! mula—mulita!—anda!—st!—st!”

In the midst of this din I fancied that I heard the voice of a woman.

“Can it be—?”

The thought was too painful.

A bugle at length sounded, and we felt ourselves again moving onward.

Our road appeared to run along the naked ridge. There were no trees, and the heat became intense. Our serapes, that had served us during the night, should have been dispensed with now, had we been consulted in relation to the matter. I did not know, until some time after, why these blankets had been given to us, as they had been hitherto very useful in the cold. It was not from any anxiety in regard to our comfort, as I learned afterwards.

We began to suffer from thirst, and Raoul asked one of the guerilleros for water.

“Carajo!” answered the man, “it’s no use: you’ll be choked by and by with something else than thirst.”

The brutal jest called forth a peal of laughter from his comrades.

About noon we commenced descending a long hill. I could hear the sound of water ahead.

“Where are we, Raoul?” I inquired faintly.

“Going down to a stream—a branch of the Antigua.”

“We are coming to another precipice?” I asked, with some uneasiness, as the roar of the torrent began to be heard more under our feet, and I snuffed the cold air from below.

“There is one, Captain. There is a good road, though, and well paved.”

“Paved! why, the country around is wild—is it not?”

“True; but the road was paved by the priests.”

“By the priests!” I exclaimed with some astonishment.

“Yes, Captain; there’s a convent in the valley, near the crossing; that is, there was one. It is now a ruin.”

We crept slowly down, our mules at times seeming to walk on their heads. The hissing of the torrent grew gradually louder, until our ears were filled with its hoarse rushing.

I heard Raoul below me shouting some words in a warning voice, when suddenly he seemed borne away, as if he had been tumbled over the precipice.

I expected to feel myself next moment launched after him into empty space, when my mule, uttering a loud whinny, sprang forward and downward.

Down—down! the next leap into eternity! No—she keeps her feet! she gallops along a level path! I am safe!

I was swung about until the thongs seemed to cut through my limbs; and with a heavy plunge I felt myself carried thigh-deep into water.

Here the animal suddenly halted.

As soon as I could gain breath I shouted at the top of my voice for the Frenchman.

“Here, Captain!” he answered, close by my side, but, as I fancied, with a strange, gurgling voice.

“Are you hurt, Raoul?” I inquired.

“Hurt? No, Captain.”

“What was it, then?”

“Oh! I wished to warn you, but I was too late. I might have known they would stampede, as the poor brutes have been no better treated than ourselves. Hear how they draw it up!”

“I am choking!” I exclaimed, listening to the water as it filtered through the teeth of my mule.

“Do as I do, Captain,” said Raoul, speaking as if from the bottom of a well.

“How?” I asked.

“Bend down, and let the water run into your mouth.”

This accounted for Raoul’s voice sounding so strangely.

“They may not give us a drop,” continued he. “It is our only chance.”

“I have not even that,” I replied, after having vainly endeavoured to reach the surface with my face.

“Why?” asked my comrade.

“I cannot reach it.”

“How deep are you?”

“To the saddle-flaps.”

“Ride this way, Captain. It’s deeper here.”

“How can I? My mule is her own master, as far as I am concerned.”

“Parbleu!” said the Frenchman. “I did not think of that.”

But, whether to oblige me, or moved by a desire to cool her flanks, the animal plunged forward into a deeper part of the stream.

After straining myself to the utmost, I was enabled to “duck” my head. In this painful position I contrived to get a couple of swallows; but I should think I took in quite as much at my nose and ears.

Clayley and Chane followed our example, the Irishman swearing loudly that it was a “burnin’ shame to make a dacent Christyin dhrink like a horse in winkers.”

Our guards now commenced driving our mules out of the water. As we were climbing the bank, someone touched me lightly upon the arm; and at the same instant a voice whispered in my ear, “Courage, Captain!”

I started—it was the voice of a female. I was about to reply, when a soft, small hand was thrust under the tapojo, and pushed something between my lips. The hand was immediately withdrawn, and I heard the voice urging a horse onward.

The clatter of hoofs, as of a horse passing me in a gallop, convinced me that this mysterious agent was gone, and I remained silent.

“Who can it be Jack? No. Jack has a soft voice—a small hand; but how could he be here, and with his hands free? No—no—no! Who then? It was certainly the voice of a woman—the hand, too. What other should have made this demonstration? I know no other—it must—it must have been—.”

I continued my analysis of probabilities, always arriving at the same result. It was both pleasant and painful: pleasant to believe she was thus, like an angel, watching over me—painful to think that she might be in the power of my fiendish enemy.

But is she so? Lincoln’s blow may have ended him. We have heard nothing of him since. Would to heaven—!

It was an impious wish, but I could not control it.

“What have I got between my lips? A slip of paper! Why was it placed there, and not in my bosom or my button-hole? Ha! there is more providence in the manner of the act than at first thought appears. How could I have taken it from either the one or the other, bound as I am? Moreover it may contain what would destroy the writer, if known to—. Cunning thought—for one so young and innocent, too—but love—.”

I pressed the paper against the tapojo, covering it with my lips, so as to conceal it in case the blind should be removed.

“Halted again?”

“It is the ruin, Captain—the old convent of Santa Bernardina.”

“But why do they halt here?”

“Likely to noon and breakfast—that on the ridge was only their desayuna. The Mexicans of the tierra caliente never travel during mid-day. They will doubtless rest here until the cool of the evening.”

“I trust they will extend the same favour to us,” said Clayley: “God knows we stand in need of rest. I’d give them three months’ pay for an hour upon the treadmill, only to stretch my limbs.”

“They will take us down, I think—not on our account, but to ease the mules. Poor brutes! they are no parties to this transaction.”

Raoul’s conjecture proved correct. We were taken out of our saddles, and, being carefully bound as before, we were hauled into a damp room, and flung down upon the floor. Our captors went out. A heavy door closed after them, and we could hear the regular footfall of a sentry on the stone pavement without. For the first time since our capture we were left alone. This my comrades tested by rolling themselves all over the floor of our prison to see if anyone was present with us. It was but a scant addition to our liberty; but we could converse freely, and that was something.


Note. Desayuna is a slight early meal.

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