The Free Rangers

by Joseph A. Altsheler

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Chapter III. An Invisible Chase

Deep in a shadowed glade sat the five, eating a quiet breakfast, and talking in low tones of satisfaction.

"I knew that you would come," said Paul, "and when I heard the four cries of the wolf I knew, too, that all four of you were there. When you sent the call Braxton Wyatt, who alone might have suspected, was asleep. The Spanish commander was awake, and he was troubled, but he did not know why."

"Wa'al, I guess he knows now," said Shif'less Sol with a silent but deep laugh. "Ef he's the kind o' man you say he is, Paul, an' I guess he is - he needed our teachin' him a lesson. I hate a man who knows too much, who is too almighty certain, an' I guess the Spaniard is one o' that kind. Think o' him commin' out here in the woods, breakin' faith, so to speak, an' holdin' you, Paul. Ef I wuz to go over to Europe, which I ain't ever goin' to do - an' wuz to light down in one o' them big cities, Paris or London, do you think I'd tell the fellers in the streets that I knowed more about their town than they did?"

"No, Sol," said Paul, "you're too wise a man ever to do such a thing."

"I should hope I wuz," said Sol emphatically. "Jest think o' me stoppin' a lot o' French fellers in the streets o' Paris, me jest happened in from the woods fur the fust time, an' sayin' to them: ' Here, Bob, be keerful how you cross the street thar, it's a right bad spot fur wagons, an' you'd shorely git run over ef you tried it,' or ' Now, Dick, that thar is the wrong street that you're takin', ef you foller it you'll land a full mile from your cabin.'

"But Frenchmen are not named Bob and Dick," said Paul with a smile.

"Wa'al ef they ain't they ought to be," said the shiftless one with conviction. "Why they want to call theirselves by all them long names nobody can pronounce, when there are a lot o' good, nice, short, handy names like Dick, an' Jim, an' Bill, an' Bob, an' Hank, layin' 'roun' loose an' jest beggin' to be used, is more'n I kin understand."

"We must soon decide what to do," said Henry. "If the Spanish captain concludes to help the Indians, and with Braxton Wyatt at his elbow I think he is likely to do it, our people in Kentucky will again be in great danger. We must drive the Spaniards back to New Orleans."

"I agree with you," said Paul, "but how is it to be done?"

"Mebbe we kin shoo 'em back, skeer 'em, so to speak," said Shif'less Sol. "We're jest bound to keep Spain out o' this country."

"It is true," said Paul. "Great things grow out of little ones. Such a land as this is sure to have a great population some day and what we five do now, obscure and few as we are, may help to decide what that population is to be."

As Paul spoke, his comrades and the shadowed glen floated away, and the look of seer came upon him. Again he saw great towns and a nation. The others regarded him with a little awe. The spiritual, or rather prophetic, quality in Paul always had their deep respect.

"Paul shorely does take mighty long looks ahead," whispered Shif'less Sol to Henry, "And sometimes I can't follow him clean to the end. I mostly drop by the way. I like to live this very minute, an' I'm pow'ful glad to be alive right now. But I'm with him clean to the finish o' our big job."

Henry nodded and presently he and the shiftless one went away through the woods. Paul, Ross, and Long Jim remained lying at ease in the forest - Paul had learned the great wilderness lesson of patience - and about noon the two returned. They had been spying upon the Spanish camp, and they reported that Alvarez and his men had not moved.

"They seem to be waiting for something," said Henry. "Braxton Wyatt is still with them, and they have posted more sentinels in a wider circle. I don't believe they will move camp for several days. So long as they keep theirs there, we'll keep ours here.

"0' course," said the shiftless one. "We must keep the watch."

Several days passed and there was little to do. One or another of the five at times crept close to the Spanish camp, and always reported that the men there were lounging at their ease and still waiting. Now and then the Spaniards hunted in detachments, usually guided by Braxton Wyatt, and brought in both deer and buffalo. On the fourth day Henry and Paul also went hunting.

"The country west of here," said Henry, "opens out into a big prairie, and we may see something worth seeing."

Paul did not ask what it was, content to go and see, and the two, rifle on shoulder, slipped away through the woods, taking a direct, western course.

Paul noticed that the country soon became much less hilly, and that the forest thinned. After a while hills and forest ceased altogether and the two stood upon the edge of a wide sweep of gently rolling, open country, extending so far that it met the horizon.

"Look," said Henry. "A great prairie!"

"And look what's on it!" exclaimed Paul.

Henry laughed and glanced at his comrade's pleased face. As far as the eye could reach the prairie was covered with a multitude of great, dark animals, grazing on the short, sweet grass. Near by these animals, as Paul saw, were a few feet apart, but further on they seemed to blend into one solid, black, but heaving mass.

"A real buffalo herd," said Henry.

Paul had seen buffaloes often in Kentucky, but there they were usually in small groups of a dozen or so, owing to the wooded nature of the country, and now he looked for the first time upon a great herd, twenty thousand, thirty thousand, maybe more - one could not calculate. The spectacle appealed greatly to his imaginative temperament.

"What a grand sight!" he said.

"Yes," said Henry, "it is wonderful, but, Paul, this is nothing to what you can see on the great plains. When I was a captive with the northwestern Indians I've seen a herd that was passing our party all day, and it was also so wide you could not see across it.

They stood there some time looking. The huge, savage bulls were on the outskirts of the herd, and just beyond them at the fringe of the forest were snarling timber wolves, waiting for a chance to drag down some careless calf, or a bull weakened to the last degree by old age.

As the two youths looked they heard a shot and saw a movement among the buffaloes. Another shot followed and then a half dozen. The portion of the herd near by seemed suddenly to contract and to roll in upon itself. The waiting wolves disappeared in the woods, and snorts of terror arose from the herd.

"There they are! I see them!" exclaimed Paul. "It is the Spaniards, sure enough!"

Five or six men in the Spanish military attire burst from the forest, not more than a hundred yards away, and continued to fire as fast as they could into the herd.

"How foolish!" exclaimed Henry. "Either they are wasting their shots or if they don't waste them they are killing far more buffaloes than they can use!"

The boys withdrew into a thicket, as they did not wish to be seen by the Spaniards, and watched closely. The soldiers continued to reload and fire and uttered shouts of joy whenever a buffalo fell. Transported by excitement they scattered, and one man ran down near Paul and Henry, detaching himself unconsciously from the rest of his comrades.

This Spaniard was, young and athletic, and he fired at a huge bull. Had he been an experienced hunter, he would have known better, as the bull was too big and tough to eat, and he was also one of the savage guardians of the herd. Moreover, the Spaniards were armed mostly with muskets, a weapon far inferior to the Kentucky rifle.

The great bull stung in the flank, but stung only, uttered a roar of pain, and, sharp horns down, charged directly upon the young Spaniard. He was a terrifying sight as he tore up the grass of the prairie, his red eyes flaming. The Spaniard, appalled, dropped his musket and ran for the woods, the great beast thundering at his heels, and his hot breath, in fancy at least, upon his back. Both Paul and Henry at that instant recognized him. It was one of unfortunate sentinels, Luiz.

"I'll save him," said Henry, "but keep back, Paul! Don't let him see you!"

The Spaniard was about to reach the edge of the wood, but another jump would bring the raging buffalo upon him. His foot caught among some root, and with a despairing cry he fell upon his face. But as he struck the ground there was a sharp, lashing report, far different from the dull boom of a musket, and the great animal suddenly ploughed forward on his head. So violent was his plunge, as he was stricken in mid-charge, that his neck was broken, and, after his crashing fall, he lay quite still.

The young Spaniard, Luiz, sprang to his feet unharmed, and he was confronted by a figure that startled him, the figure of a very tall and powerful youth, clad wholly in deerskin, leaning on a long, slender barreled Kentucky rifle, and looking at him contemplatively. So sudden was his appearance and so fixed his gaze that Luiz, although joyful over his escape from death, was startled and awed. His adventure of a few nights before when he was seized, bound, and gagged by unseen but powerful hands had left him shaken, and now his brain was whirling.

The young Spaniard stared at the figure, which neither moved nor spoke, but which returned his gaze with a fixed look. Was it a spirit, or was it really one of the Americans? But whatever it was, it had, beyond a doubt, saved his life, and deep down in his Spanish heart he was not ungrateful.

"Thanks, Senior!" he stammered. "Your shot-it was just in time!"

The apparition spoke, but only a few words.

"We are your friends, not your enemies, don't forget," it said, and the startled Luiz rubbed his eyes. The figure of the great youth was gone. It had been there and then it was not there, and only some bushes, waving slightly, told where it had been. He regained his musket, and, still bewildered, rejoined his comrades to tell them a story that they did not more than half believe.

Henry, laughing a little, returned to Paul. It had been a simple trick. He had merely darted away among the bushes, while Luiz was still in a daze.

"I did not want to see the man killed," he said, "and maybe we have sowed a good seed, that will grow up in time, and produce something."

"It may be," added Paul.

They went a little farther into the forest and watched the Spaniards finish their hunt, gather up as much of their game as they could carry, and depart. When they were well out of sight, Henry and Paul went to a slain cow that the soldiers had neglected, cut out some of the choicest portions, and took the way to their own camp.

"I think the Spaniards are likely to be disturbed over what has happened," said Henry.

In fact, the shiftless one, who was the scout the following night, returned with a story that the Spanish camp was greatly agitated. Braxton Wyatt and Alvarez were positive that the five were still lingering somewhere near, but the uneducated soldiers were not sure that a spirit was not lurking in the wilderness. It might be a beneficent spirit, as it had saved Luiz, but, on the other hand, it had taken away the American prisoner, and they were afraid of the unknown and mysterious. These vast, dark woods were so different from the open and sunny plains of Spain, where a man knew what to expect, that they were inspired with awe.

Yet Alvarez would not move, so Shif'less Sol reported. He seemed to be still waiting for something, and on the following night Henry, Paul, and Shif'less Sol went forth to watch the Spanish camp again.

"I've a feelin' in me," said the shiftless one, "that somethin' is goin' to happen to-night. I often have these feelin's, omens some people call 'em, mm' readins' other people say. I notice that I gena'lly have 'em jest about when all the circumstances show that things are comm' to a head, jest ez ef Paul here wuz to feel along about 6 or 7 o'clock in the afternoon that sundown couldn't be fur away. You can't beat it. Now when I've gone fifteen or eighteen hours without food I have a feelin'- an' it's a strong one, too - that I'm goin' (to be hungry, an' I'm sca'cely ever mistook, jest ez I've got a feelin' when the skies are filled with big black clouds that it's liable to rain purty soon. I tell you, Paul, it's a great thing to have this here power you call second sight."

The three walked steadily on in Indian file through the forest, their trained feet making no sound among the trunks and brushes. The night was dark, just suited to their purpose, and clouds floated up to dim the skies. No stars came out, and the moon was hidden. By and bye the wind rose, and dashes of rain were whipped into their faces. But the three did not mind. Such things as these had become trifles to them long since. Henry led with sure step, Shif'less Sol came next, and Paul brought up the rear. Henry stopped after a awhile and sank down among the bushes. The other two did likewise, and, after a little pause in which they heard nothing, they began to creep forward, taking the utmost care to make not even the slightest sound. They saw presently through the trees and bushes a faint red shade that grew fast to a glow and then to a glare.

Henry stopped, sank lower, and beckoned to his comrades. They crept to his side and looked over a steep little cliff directly upon the Spanish camp. Most of the soldiers were grouped about a large camp fire, and Francisco Alvarez was among them in a place of honor.

Hidden in the deep shrubbery the three occupied points of vantage, and, while secure from observation themselves, they could easily see all that passed in the glade. Several tents had been set, although the flaps were wide open and within one of these sat Francisco Alvarez in all the gorgeous attire of a Spanish officer, most fastidious in his taste. The gold on his uniform glittered, the lace on his cuffs was snowy and fresh, and the polished hilt of his small sword gleamed in the firelight. He had the air of one who expected distinguished guests.

"Now I wonder what has become of Braxton Wyatt," whispered Paul. Nowhere could he see a sign of the renegade.

"He is coming," whispered Henry, who had what Shif'less Sol would have called an intuition.

Two of the Spaniards heaped more wood upon the fire. The logs crackled and blazed merrily, casting long tongues of flame across the glade, and sending a grateful heat into the veins of the warm-blooded Southerners. The flurries of rain ceased, and the skies brightened a little. A star or two peeped out.

Said Henry in the lowest of whispers, "here they come!"

The bushes at the far side of the glade parted and three figures came into the open. They took but two or three steps forward and then stopped full in the blaze of the firelight, where every feature showed like carving in the red glow. The hidden watchers recognized at once the three who had come. They were Braxton Wyatt, Yellow Panther the Miami chief, and Red Eagle the Shawnee chief. Paul repressed a little cry of amazement that he should see the two Indian leaders so far from the territory of their tribes. They must intend much to come such a journey.

Braxton Wyatt stepped back a little, as if having performed his function of guide he would now remain awhile in the background, but the two great chiefs stood motionless, side by side, magnificent specimens of savage life, bronze of skin, tall of figure, powerful of chest, thin, eagle-like faces, and defiant scalp-locks waving above. The imaginative Paul, seeing how well they fitted into the wilderness scene, was forced to admire. The firelight flickered and blazed over them, but they were immovable in all their savage dignity. Henry put his hand upon Paul's shoulder, and pressed gently. It was an intimation to look with all his eyes and listen with all attention. But Paul did not need the hint.

Francisco Alvarez also was impressed. He loved the towns and luxury, but he had acuteness and perception, and he knew that these were strong men of their kind, men with whom he must deal according to the courtesy of the woods. He rose from his tent, bowed to them, and walked forward. He himself was a splendid figure in his gorgeous uniform, and his carriage was marked by dignity.

"Now see them salute," whispered the shiftless one in Paul's ear.

Braxton Wyatt stepped forward again, produced a pipe with a beautifully carved horn handle, and filled it carefully with tobacco, which he lighted with a coal from the fire. Then he handed it to Red Eagle, who was the older of the chiefs, and Red Eagle gravely took a half dozen whiffs. Then he passed it to Yellow Panther, who did likewise, and the chief in his turn handed it to the Spanish commander. Alvarez smoked gravely for a half minute, and then Braxton Wyatt took the pipe.

"Now for the big confab," whispered Sol.

Fine buffalo robes were spread before the fire, and the three leaders and Braxton Wyatt sat upon them. All others kept at a respectful distance. The four began to talk and, although only an occasional word reached the watching three, they knew too well their subject of converse. It was the great conspiracy to draw the Spanish from Louisiana into an attack upon the infant settlements, upon the ground that, they were or would be interlopers. It was cannon that the assailants needed to smash the block houses, and cannon in abundance could be brought on the great rivers from New Orleans.

The watchers presently saw Braxton Wyatt take a small parcel from the inside of his deerskin hunting shirt. He unfolded the parcel and the watchers could see that it consisted of large pieces of the finest, tanned deerskin.

"Maps," said Paul intuitively. "That scoundrel, Braxton Wyatt, has made them for the advantage of the Spanish, and to disclose all our weak points!"

The fire blazed higher and they could see that on the white deerskin were drawn lines in colored pigment, and the rest they guessed. It was true enough. Braxton Wyatt, no mean draughtsman, had drawn, with the most elaborate care and attention to detail, maps on a large scale of every one of the infant settlements.

There was nothing about Wareville in particular that he did not show, and he also designated all the rivers, hills, and valleys as far as they were known. With such aid a Spanish force, backed by cannon and the warriors, must triumph over every post in Kentucky.

"I never thought of this," whispered Paul. Henry merely pressed his shoulder again to indicate that they were ready to deal with it, if man could.

The three watchers remained there more than an hour, and Alvarez, Wyatt, and the chiefs still discussed the maps with every appearance of agreement, bending their heads over them, and now and then disclosing eager faces, as they lifted them in the firelight.

"Alvarez wants to help them," whispered Paul. "He hates us, and, if he can, he will commit the Governor of Louisiana to the Indian alliance."

"Beyond a doubt," replied Henry, "and so it's not worth while for us to wait here any longer."

They slid away in the dark and returned to their own camp. There Long Jim and Tom Ross were placidly awaiting them, and they were not at all surprised with the news. Then the five held another of their conferences.

"I think it likely," said Paul, "that Alvarez will go back at once to New Orleans. He will tell the Governor there that armed bands of Americans are trespassing upon Spanish territory and that they must be driven off. He will come back with cannon and a powerful force to do the driving. That means war, of course, and an attack upon us in Kentucky.

"How will the Governor of New Orleans know whether the fighting is on Spanish territory or not? And, even if Alvarez overstepped the limits he could say that he was attacked first."

"Of course," said Henry, "and it means that we must follow Alvarez all the way to New Orleans, if necessary, and it may be that we shall have to carry the message of the Kentuckians to Bernardo Galvez, the Spanish Governor General himself."

"We're ready," said Shif'less Sol lazily. "I wouldn't mind seem' that furrin town. I saw a town once when I wuz a little boy. It wuz Baltimore, an' a pow'ful big place it wuz, most nigh set my head to swimmin'. I heard tell that ez many ez eight or ten thousand people lived thar. Sounds impossible but some o' 'em swore it wuz true."

"We'll prepare at once for the journey," said Henry. All set to work.

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