Into Mexico with General Scott - Edwin Sabin

The Americans Gain a Recruit

The norther was making things uncomfortable in the city as well as outside. The streets were lashed by howling wind, and raked by sand and bits of clay; loosened stones crashed to the pavement, threatening the few people who scuttled around the corners; and when the thick dusk gathered early Vera Cruz seemed deserted. But if matters were bad here, what must they be yonder, out in the open?

Jerry was going to know, pretty soon. It was time that he left Vera Cruz. He did not belong in Vera Cruz, where Americans were disliked. It was the enemy's country. The two Manuels had housed him in their shack, and had fed him, but only because he worked for them. He had not seen them this day—did not wish ever to see them 'again; they had cuffed him on the ears, they thought little of slapping him about. He had stayed with them because there was nothing else for him to do. But now his own people had arrived to teach these Mexicans a lesson; had brought the Flag right to the doorway of Mexico, and were knocking for admittance.

If they really did not get in—of course they would get in, but supposing they didn't, and had to go away and try at another place! Supposing, as the Vera Cruzans said, the walls held out against the cannon, and the yellow fever raged, then he would be stranded the same as before. It was a long, long way from Vera Cruz to the United States

So this was the time to make a dash for freedom, while the way was short and the norther blew.

At eight o'clock the darkness was dense with the smother of dust. Nobody saw him as he ran low like a rabbit, tacking from building to building and corner to corner, until he had reached the wall at a place nearest to the American cannon. The wall was twelve feet high, here; at intervals it was built into batteries, jutting outside and inside both; but to-night even the sentries had been forced under cover.

The wall was very old; there were sections where it had crumbled and could be climbed easily enough by means of toe-holds and finger-holds. All the boys of Vera Cruz knew that old wall perfectly; and it was used as a promenade also by men and women who strolled upon the wide top.

The American cannon had done little damage to it yet. The mortar bombs all passed over, to land in the city. But Jerry remembered a spot where he often had climbed before, in fun—and to show the Vera Cruzans that their wall could not keep a boy in.

He had to guess at the spot, in the wind and the darkness. When he thought that he was there, he shinned up. Here the wind struck him full blast, and whew! He had to lie flat and crawl, clutching fast with fingers and toes, feeling his way, and fairly plastered to the rough top. If once he raised up, away he would go like a leaf; for that wind certainly meant business.

At last, feeling ahead, he came to the crumbled edge. And now, cautiously swinging about, he prepared to slide over feet first. If this was the right spot, he would land outside after a slide of only about ten feet. But how to tell? There wasn't any way. It might be that this was not the right place at all, and he would drop straight down more than ten feet and break a leg. Still, he was bound to try. So he backed like a crab, farther and farther, exploring with his toes; he was over the edge, he was clinging with his knees and hands and barking his shins—and on a sudden the edge gave under his fingers and down he slithered, fast and faster, all in the darkness, with clatter and rasp and scrape, until—thump!

No, it had not been the exact spot. Maybe by daylight he wouldn't have risked such a long slide, on his stomach. But his clothes could not be hurt—a few more rags made no difference, and he was all right.

He had landed on his back in the dry moat or ditch which skirted the bottom of the wall. Under his feet there was a heap of mortar from the wall, and a stiff bush had almost skewered hint He picked himself up, to claw out. In a moment the wind struck him full, again—sent him reeling and sprawling, and stung his cheek with sand and pebbles. Somewhere before him there lay the dunes and the American camp; but he could not see a thing, he had to cross the flat, brushy strip half a mile wide, and unless he kept his wits sharpened he would get all turned around.

Well, the wind was his only guide; it hit him quartering, from the left or gulf side—came like a sheet of half-solid air, to flatten hint Leaning against it he bored on, trying to go in a straight line. Ouch! Cactus I And more cactus. Ouch! A large thorny bush. Ouch! A hollow into which he stepped with a grunt.

The plain was a whirlpool of whistling wind and blinding sand that took his breath and blistered his cheek. The cactus stabbed him, the brush tripped him; every little while he had to sit down and rest. One lone boy seemed a small figure in the midst of that great storm, black with murk, especially when he wasn't dead certain that he was heading right.

That was a tremendously long half mile. Was he never going to get to the other edge? Perhaps he would be better off if he stayed in one spot and waited for morning. No; then he would be caught between two fires—might be shot by one side or the other, or else captured by prowling Mexican soldiers.

After a while the wind slackened a little; the air cleared, and so did the sky. A moon peeped forth from the overhead scud. He thought that he could see the dunes, in a dim line, and he pushed on for them as fast as he could. He ought to be drawing near to them, by this time, for Vera Cruz lay hours behind him, according to the way his legs ached from his stumblings and zigzaggings.

Here came the wind, again—4n a terrific blast as if it had been only taking breath, too. The moon vanished, everything vanished, and he was blinded by the dust once more.

Then, quite unexpectedly, as he was leaning and gasping and blundering on, breaking through the brush and never minding the cactus, he ran against a mound of sand. He sort of crawled up this, clawing his way—the wind seized him, on top, hurled him forward, and down he pitched, headfirst, into a hole on the other side.

This time he landed upon something soft and alive. It grabbed him tightly in two arms and he heard a voice in good sailor American:

"Shiver my timbers! Belay there, whoever you be. Hey, maties! Stand by to repel boarders! They're entering by the ports."

"No, no! I'm a boy—I'm an American!" Jerry panted. "There's nobody else."

"A boy? Bless my bloomin' eyes." The grip relaxed, but the voice growled. "Wot d'you foul my hawser for, when I'm snugged under for the night, with storm anchors out?"

"I didn't mean to," Jerry stammered.

"Who are you, then? Wot's your rating? Answer quick, and no guff."

"I'm nobody 'special—I'm Jerry Cameron. I've run away from Vera Cruz."

"Under bare poles, too, by the feel of you. You're a bloody spy, eh?"

"No, I'm not," Jerry implored. "I'm an American, I told you."

"Where's the rest of your boarding crew?"

"There aren't any."

"Does your mother know you're out?"

"She's dead. So's my father."

"Now if you're one o' them young limbs o' drummer boys, playing a game on me—"

"I'm not," Jerry declared.

"Wot do you want here?"

"I want to join the army."

"The army! Get out, then. Don't you go taking this for any landlubber mess. Avast with you! Port your helm and sheer off." And the clutch loosened.

"But where am I, please?" Jerry asked, bewildered.

"Wait till I out a half hitch on you and I'll tell you; for if you're putting up a game you'll be hanged to the yardarm at sunrise. That's regulations. Lie quiet, now. I'm hungry and I'm a reg'lar bloomin' cannerbal."

A cord was deftly passed about Jerry's slim waist, tightened, tied, and apparently fastened to his captor also—who growled again as if satisfied. Flint and steel were struck, and a lantern lighted—a lantern enclosed in a wire netting—a battle lantern. It was flashed upon Jerry, and at the same time flashed upon his captor. He saw a very red face—a dirty face but a good-natured face, under a shock of tow hair; and a pair of broad shoulders encased in a heavy woollen jacket. Two bright blue eyes surveyed him.

"A bloomin' bloody stowaway," the man growled, not unkindly. "That's wot! Well, wot you want to know?"

"Where am I, if this isn't the army?" Jerry pleaded.

"The army be blowed," answered the man. "This is the navy, young feller. Bless my eye, but you're in the naval battery, as you'll soon find out, and so'll those bloody dons when we open up in the morning."

"Yes, sir. But I think I'd like to stay, anyway," said Jerry; for he was down under the wind, and he was very tired.

"Right-o, my hearty." The man untied the rope. "Now we can lie yard and yard, but mind you keep quiet, 'cause I'm dead for sleep. One wiggle, and out you go. All quiet below decks. That's discipline and them's man-o'-war orders."

The sailor turned down the lantern, and settled himself with a grunt.