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Chapter 54 - The Rifle Rangers by Mayne Reid

A Duel, with an odd Ending

After the battle of Cerro Gordo, our victorious troops pursued the enemy on to Jalapa, where the army halted to bring up its wounded, and prepare for an advance upon the capital of Mexico.

The Jalapenos did not receive us inhospitably—nor the Jalapenas either. They expected, as a matter of course, that we would sack their beautiful city. This we did not do, and their gratitude enabled our officers to pass their time somewhat agreeably. The gay round that always succeeds a battle—for dead comrades are soon forgotten amidst congratulations and new titles—had no fascination for me.

The balls, the tertulias, the dias de campo, were alike insipid and tiresome. She was not there—and where? I knew not. I might never see her again. All I knew was that they had gone up the country—perhaps to Cordova or Orizava.

Clayley shared my feelings. The bright eyes in the balconies, the sweet voices in the orange-shaded patios of Jalapa, had neither brightness nor music for us. We were both thoroughly miserable.

To add to this unhappy state of things, a bad feeling had sprung up among the officers of our army—a jealousy between the old and the new. Those of the old standing army, holding themselves as a species of military aristocracy, looked upon their brethren of the new regiments as “interlopers”; and this feeling pervaded all ranks, from the commander-in-chief down to the lowest subaltern.

It did not, however, interest all individuals. There were many honourable men on both sides who took no part in a question so ridiculous, but, on the contrary, endeavoured to frown it down. It was the child of idleness and a long spell of garrison duty. On the eve of a battle it always disappeared. I have adverted to this, not that it might interest the reader, but as explaining a result connected with myself.

One of the most prominent actors in this quarrel, on the side of the “old regulars”, was a young officer named Ransom, a captain in an infantry regiment. He was a good fellow in other respects, and a brave soldier, I believe; his chief weakness lay in a claim to be identified with the “aristocracy.”

It is strange that this miserable ambition is always strongest where it should exist with the least propriety. I have observed, in travelling through life—and so has the reader, no doubt—that parvenus are the greatest sticklers for aristocratic privilege; and Captain Ransom was no exception to this rule. In tumbling over some old family papers, I had found a receipt from the gallant captain’s grandfather to my own progenitor, acknowledging the payment of a bill for leather breeches.

It so happened that this very receipt was in my portmanteau at the time; and, nettled at the “carryings-on” of the tailor’s grandson, I drew it forth and spread it out upon the mess-table. My brethren of the mess were highly tickled at the document, several of them copying it off for future use.

A copy soon reached Ransom, who, in his hour of indignation, made use of certain expressions that, in their turn, soon reached me.

The result was a challenge, borne by my friend Clayley, and the affair was arranged for the following morning.

The place chosen for our morning’s diversion was a sequestered spot upon the banks of the river Zedena, and along the solitary road that leads out towards the Cofre de Perote.

At sunrise we rode out in two carriages, six of us, including our seconds and surgeons. About a mile from town we halted, and leaving the carriages upon the road, crossed over into a small glade in the midst of the chaparral.

It was as pretty a spot for our purpose as the heart could wish for, and had often, we were informed, been used for similar morning exercises—that was, before chivalry had died out among the descendants of Cortez and the conquerors.

The ground was soon lined off—ten paces—and we took our stands, back to back. We were to wheel at the word “Ready!” and fire at “One, two, three!”

We were waiting for the word with that death-like silence which always precedes a similar signal, when Little Jack, who had been left with the carriages, rushed into a glade, calling with all his might:

“Captain! Captain!”

Every face was turned upon him with scowling inquiry, when the boy, gasping for breath, shouted out:

“The Mexicans are on the road!”

The words had scarcely passed his lips when the trampling of hoofs sounded in our ears, and the next moment a band of horsemen came driving pell-mell into the opening. At a single glance we recognised the guerilla!

Ransom, who was nearest, blazed away at the foremost of the band, missing his aim. With a spring the guerillero was over him, his sabre raised for the blow. I fired, and the Mexican leapt from his saddle with a groan.

“Thank you, Haller,” cried my antagonist, as we rushed side by side towards the pistols.

There were four pairs in all, and the surgeons and seconds had already armed themselves, and were pointing their weapons at the enemy. We seized the remaining two, cocking them as we turned.

At this moment my eye fell upon a black horse, and, looking, I recognised the rider. He saw and recognised me at the same moment, and, driving the spurs into his horse’s flanks, sprang forward with a yell. With one bound he was over me, his white teeth gleaming like a tiger’s. His sabre flashed in my eyes—I fired—a heavy body dashed against me—I was struck senseless to the earth!

I was only stunned, and in a few moments I came to my senses. Shots and shouts rang around me. I heard the trampling of hoofs and the groans of wounded men.

I looked up. Horsemen in dark uniforms were galloping across the glade and into the woods beyond. I recognised the yellow facings of the American dragoons.

I drew my hand over my face; it was wet with blood. A heavy body lay across mine, which Little Jack, with all his strength, was endeavouring to drag off. I crawled from under it, and, bending over, looked at the features. I knew them at a glance. I muttered to my servant:

“Dubrosc! He is dead!”

His body lay spread out in its picturesque attire. A fair form it was. A bullet—my own—had passed through his heart, killing him instantly. I placed my hand upon his forehead. It was cold already, and his beautiful features were white and ashy. His eyes glared with the ghastly expression of death.

“Close them!” I said to the boy, and turned away from the spot.

Wounded men lay around, dragoons and Mexicans, and some were already dead.

A party of officers was at the moment returning from the pursuit, and I recognised my late adversary, with our seconds and surgeons. My friend Clayley had been wounded in the mêlée, and I observed that he carried his arm in a sling. A dragoon officer galloped up.

It was Colonel Harding.

“These fellows, gentlemen,” cried he, reining up his horse, “just came in time to relieve me from a disagreeable duty. I have orders from the commander-in-chief to arrest Captains Haller and Ransom.

“Now, gentlemen,” he continued with a smile, “I think you have had fighting enough for one morning, and if you will promise me to be quiet young men, and keep the peace, I shall, for once in my life, take the liberty of disobeying a general’s orders. What say you, gentlemen?”

It needed not this appeal. There had been no serious cause of quarrel between my adversary and myself, and, moved by a similar impulse, we both stepped forward and grasped one another by the hand.

“Forgive me, my dear Haller,” said Ransom, “I retract all. I assure you my remarks were only made upon the spur of the moment, when I was angry about those cursed leather breeches.”

“And I regret to have given you cause,” I replied. “Come with me to my quarters. Let us have a glass of wine together, and we shall light our cigars with the villainous document.”

A burst of laughter followed, in which Ransom good-naturedly joined; and we were soon on our way to town, seated in the same carriage, and the best friends in creation!

Some of the soldiers who had “rifled” the body of Dubrosc found a paper upon him which proved that the Frenchman was a spy in the service of Santa Anna. He had thrown himself into the company at New Orleans with the intention of gaining information, and then deserting on his arrival at Mexico. This he succeeded in doing in the manner detailed. Had he been in command of the “Rifle Rangers”, he would doubtless have found an opportunity to deliver them over to the enemy at La Virgen or elsewhere.

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