The Free Rangers

by Joseph A. Altsheler

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Chapter IV. Taking a Galleon

Henry and Shif'less Sol spied upon the Spanish camp again the next day, and returned with news that the two chiefs had departed, but that Braxton Wyatt had remained, evidently intending to accompany Alvarez to New Orleans, where they were sure the Spanish leader now intended going.

"I think, too," said Henry, "that they will break up camp in the morning and march. I believe that they came up on the Mississippi, and will return the same way."

"Then they have boats," said Paul in dismay, "and we have none."

"But we can get one," said Henry significantly.

"If you want a thing, jest go an' git it," said Shif'less Sol. "I remember once when I wuz a leetle bit a boy back in the East, I hankered terribly after some hickory nuts that I knowed wuz in a grove about a mile from our house. I suffered days an' days o' anguish fur them hickory nuts, wishin' mighty bad all the time that I had 'em. At the end o' two weeks I walked over an' got 'em, an' my sufferin' stopped off short."

"That's just what we mean to do about our boat, step over and get it," said Henry laughing. But he did not divulge his plan and the others were content to wait for the event.

As Henry had predicted the Spanish camp broke up the following morning, and Alvarez and his force took up a march almost due eastward. They traveled in an easy fashion, and showed no signs of apprehension, Alvarez deeming that fifty well-armed men were not in any danger from wandering tribes. He did not know that five resolute borderers were following closely behind him, even looking into his camp at night, and knowing every important thing that he did. Braxton Wyatt may have suspected it, but he said nothing, aware that it could not be prevented.

The five were well prepared. They carried a large supply of ammunition, a blanket each, and jerked meat. If their food supplies gave out there was the forest swarming with game, and they knew that it swarmed in the same fashion all the way down to New Orleans. They would camp at sunset three or four miles from the Spaniards, keeping watch the night through, and in the morning it was easy enough to take up the trail of Alvarez and his men, which, to their experienced eyes, was like a high road leading through the forest.

One evening just as the sun was setting Henry parted some twining bushes and looked over a cliff. The others came to his side and they, too, looked as he was looking. At their very feet lay the mighty Mississippi. They had seen it before, but it was never so impressive as now. Great at any time it was in spring flood, rolling a vast, yellow current down toward the Gulf. The waters overflowed on the low, eastern shore, and it was so far across that they could not see the further bank in the shadowed evening. The setting sun, nevertheless, lighted up the middle of the current with blood-red gleams, and the five gazed with a certain awe at the mighty stream, as it flowed ever onward. It was the highly imaginative Paul who was impressed the most.

"We know where it goes to," he said, "but I wonder where it comes from."

Henry waved his hand vaguely toward the North.

"Up there somewhere," he said, "a thousand miles from here, or maybe two thousand. Nobody can tell."

Paul did not say anything more, but continued to gaze at the vast, yellow current of the Mississippi, coming out of the unknown regions of the far north and flowing into lands of the far south, almost as mysterious and vague, once belonging to France but now owning the lordship of Spain. It was the homely language of Shif'less Sol that recalled him from his dreams.

"It's purty big out thar, an' looks ez if you couldn't tamper with it - this here river stands no foolin'- but do you know, Paul, water's pow'ful friendly. It's always travelin' about, always on the move. Land stands still, it's always thar, an' never sees nothin' new, but water jest keeps a' movin', seein' new countries, here to-day, somewhar else to-morrow, havin' new banks, breathin' new air, floatin' peacefully on to new people, gatherin' in their talk an' ways.

"Jest think! This river comes out o' we don't know whar, sees all the wilderness, whispers to the bars and buffaloes an' Injun tribes ez it goes by, takes a look at us standin' here on the bank, an', after wonderin' what we're about, slips on down hundreds o' miles to Louisianny, gazin' at the French thar on the bank at New Orleans, an' then shoots out into the sea."

"Thar to be lost," said the unpoetical Long Jim.

"Not to be lost, never to be lost, Jim," said Shif'less Sol earnestly. "That Missip water is still thar in the sea, an' it goes slippin' an' slidin' along with the salt clean to all them old continents. It takes a look in at England, that's fightin' us in the East, an' if the English could understand the water's language it might tell 'em a lot o' things that wuz wuth their knowin'. An' then it goes on to Spain an' France an' Germany, whar they talk all them useless tongues, an' after a while it takes a whirl clean 'roun' Africa an' Asia, an' sees goodness knows what, an' then goes slippin' off to see islands in oceans that I ain't ever heard tell on. Jumpin' Jehoshaphat but ain't that a movin' an' stirrin' life fur ye!"

Sol drew a deep breath and Paul looked at him with shining eyes.

"You've said a good deal of what I was thinking, Sol," he said, "but for which I couldn't find words."

"We're likely to travel with the river for a while," said Tom Ross, "an' we must purvide a way."

"We'll do it soon," said Henry.

They camped that night in a dense grove near the bank, but they built no fire. After midnight Henry and Shif'less Sol slipped away and went northward.

"'Bout four miles on we'll strike them Spaniards," said the shiftless one.

It was a close calculation, as at the end of the four miles they saw the light of a fire flaring through the trees and bushes and knew that they had come upon Alvarez and his men. Their camp lay on rather low ground beside a little bay of the Mississippi, and the keen eyes of the two woodsmen saw at once that the force of Alvarez had been increased.

"He's got about seventy men whar he had about fifty afore," said Shif'less Sol as they crept nearer.

"They came on boats as I thought," replied Henry, "and he left a detachment here with the boats, while he went across country. Maybe he was on an exploring expedition or something of that kind, when Braxton Wyatt overtook him with his proposition.

Sol looked at Henry and Henry looked at Sol. A ray of moonlight fell upon their tanned and stern faces. Then as they looked a twinkle appeared in the eye of each. The twinkle deepened and the two broke simultaneously into a soundless laugh.

"We want one of those boats," said Henry.

"We shorely do," said Shif'less Sol.

"We need it in the course of our duty," said Henry.

"We jest can't git along without it," said Shif'less Sol.

"It will be much easier floating down the middle of the Mississippi in a boat than it will be walking along the bank all the way."

"It will shorely save the feet, an' give a feller time to think, while the current's doin' the work. It jest suits a lazy man like me."

Again they broke simultaneously into a laugh that contained no sound, but which was full of mirth.

"It's taking what doesn't belong to us, and we are not at war with the Spanish," said Henry.

"They tried to hold Paul a prisoner, and they're not at war with us," rejoined Sol. "We've got a right to hit back. Besides, we're doin' it to save a war, and we're only borrowin' their boat fur their own good."

The two, without further ado, made a circuit around the Spanish camp, coming down on the northern side. There fortunately for them the trees and bushes were thick to the water's edge, and the shore was very low. In fact, the river, owing to the flood, overlapped the bushes.

They redoubled their caution, using every art and device of woodcraft to approach without noise. They could see the flare of the camp fire beyond the bushes, and now and then they caught sight of a sentinel's head. They felt amply justified in this attempt, for Alvarez had not only held Paul a prisoner, but was plotting with the Indian chiefs to slay all the white people in Kentucky.

"Here are the boats," whispered Henry.

There they were, eight in number, large, strong boats, every one with several pairs of oars, and tied with ropes to the bushes.

The eyes of Shif'less Sol watered as he gazed.

"They look pow'ful good to a lazy man," he said, "I could shorely sleep mighty comf'table in one a' them while Jim Hart wuz pullin' at the oars."

"I think the small one at the end nearest to us would just suit our party," said Henry; "although it has more, it could be handled easily with a single pair of oars."

"Shorely!" said Shif'less Sol, "but how to git away with it is now the question."

It was indeed a problem, vexing and likewise dangerous. A sentinel, musket on shoulder, walked up and down in front of the Spanish navy, and he seemed to be very wide awake. Moreover, two men slept in each boat.

"We must get that sentinel somehow," said Henry, "not to hurt him, but to see that he doesn't talk for the next half hour or so."

"What's your idea?" asked the shiftless one.

Henry whispered to him rapidly and Sol grinned with satisfaction.

"Good enough," said the shiftless one. "It'll work," and he crept away from Henry deep in the bushes a little west of the sentinel. A moment or two later the Spaniard on watch was startled by a sharp, warning hiss from the edge of the thicket. He knew very well what made it - a rattlesnake, a thing that he loathed and feared. He certainly did not want such a deadly reptile sliding through the grass on his feet, and, clubbing his musket, he walked forward, looking intently for the venomous thing. He did not see it at first and all his faculties became absorbed in the search. Holding the clubbed musket ready for an instant blow he peered into the grass and short bushes. He was a Spaniard not without courage, but he was oppressed by the night, the wilderness, the huge river flowing by, and his feeling that he was far, very far, from Spain. Under the circumstances, the poisonous hiss inspired him with an intense dread and he was eager to slay. He leaned a little farther, swinging the musket butt back and forth, ready for a quick blow when he should see the target.

He did not hear a light step behind him, but he did feel a powerful arm grasp him around the waist, pinning his own arms to his side, while a hand was clasped over his mouth, checking the ready cry that could not pass his lips. Then before his starting eyes a figure rose out of the bushes whence the hiss had come. It was not that of a rattlesnake, but that of a man, a tall man with powerful shoulders, blue eyes, and yellow hair, undoubtedly one of the ferocious Americans.

The sentinel felt that his hour had come, and he began to patter his prayers in his throat, but the two Americans, the one before him, and the one who had grasped him from behind, did not slay him at once. Instead they said words together in their harsh tongue. Then they tore pieces from the sentinel's clothing, made a wad of it and pressed it into his mouth. They also tied a strip from the same clothing over his mouth and behind his head, and, still despoiling his clothing, they bound him hand and foot and laid him in the bushes, where he was invisible to his comrades 'and could only see a sky in which a few dim stars danced. But on the whole he was glad. They had not killed him as he had expected, and the gag in his mouth was soft. Moreover, his comrades would surely find him in time and release him.

Henry and Shif'less Sol turned away and smiled again at each other.

"Not much trouble, that," whispered the shiftless one. "He wuz shorely a skeered Spaniard ef I kin read a man's face. Guess he wuz glad to get off ez easy ez he did. Now fur the boat!"

"Here we are," said Henry. "We must pitch out the two men sleeping in it - you take one and I'll take the other - and then we must seize the oars and pull like mad, because the whole camp will be up."

The boat was tied with a rope to a stout sapling and two Spanish soldiers slumbered in great peace inside. The oars lay beside them. Henry cut the rope with one sweep of his long-bladed hunting-knife, and then he and Shif'less Sol sprang into the boat. Each seized a man by the shoulders and lifted him in his powerful arms. It was a chance that one of the sleepers was Luiz, and, when he was snatched suddenly from blissful dreams to somber fact, he opened his eyes to see bending over him the same grave, tanned being who had rescued him from the raging buffalo.

But it was not a beneficent spirit, because Luiz was tossed bodily the next moment into three feet of muddy water. He uttered a cry of terror and despair as he went down, and another Spaniard uttered a similar cry at the same moment. Both cries were cut off short by mouthfuls of the Mississippi, but the two Spaniards came up a moment later, and began to wade hastily to the shore. Each cast a frightened glance behind him, and saw their boat disappearing on the river's bosom, carrying the two evil spirits with it.

"I shorely enjoyed that," said Shif'less Sol, as the oars bent beneath his powerful stroke. "That Spaniard's face as he woke up an' found hisself whirled out into the Mississippi w'uz the funniest thing I ever seed, an' I had the fun, too, without hurting him. It ain't often, Paul, that you kin do what you need to do an' be full o' laugh, too, an' so when the time comes I make the most o' it."

"It was worth seeing," said Henry, "and we've been in great luck, too. There, hear 'em! They've got the water out of their mouths and are giving tongue again! Pull, Sol! Pull!"

Loud shouts came from the sentinels who had risen from their bath and it was followed by cries in the Spanish camp. Torches flared, there was the sound of running footsteps, and dusky figures appeared at the river's bank.

"Pull, Sol! Pull!" exhorted Henry again. "We're not yet out of range!"

Shots were fired and bullets pattered on the water but none reached the boat. They heard angry cries, imprecations, and they saw one figure apparently giving commands, which they were sure was that of Francisco Alvarez.

"Now if they had our Kentucky rifles and real marksmen," said Shif'less Sol, "they could pick you an' me off without any trouble. Thar's light enough. But with them old bell-mouthed muskets they can't do much. No, Henry, we're bold pirates on the high seas an' we've been an' took a Spanish gallyun - ain't that what they call their treasure ships? 'Pears to me, Henry, I kinder like bein' a pirate, 'specially when you do the takin', an' ain't took yourself."

"That's so," laughed Henry, "but we'd better keep pulling, Sol, with all our might. They're sure to pursue, and, as they have plenty of men for the oars, we need all the start that we can get."

They were well out in the middle of the stream now, and the deep, powerful current of the Mississippi was aiding them greatly, but both glanced back. The shore was lined with men and another volley was fired. All the bullets fell short, and Shif'less Sol laughed contemptuously.

"Now they are beginnin' the pursuit," he said.

Four boats had been cut loose, and, filled with Spaniards, they were pushed from the bank. Henry turned the prow of their own boat until it bore in a slanting direction toward the eastern shore.

"What's your plan?" asked the shiftless one.

"The river, you know, has overflowed on the eastern shore over there for three or four miles; we must lose ourselves in the forest on that side."

"An' let 'em pass us?"

"That's just it. We want 'em to go on ahead of us to Louisiana, while we follow. Besides we've got to pick up Paul and Jim and Tom."

Shouts arose from the pursuers and more shots were fired, but they were still beyond the range of the Spanish muskets and the two were untouched. They were not even alarmed.

"There's a lot of confusion in the boats," said Henry, who looked back again with a critical eye, "and as they don't pull together they're not gaining. The night is also growing darker and that helps us, too. Keep it up, Sol."

"All right," said the shiftless one, increasing his stroke. "It's fine to be a pirate, Henry. Wonder why I never tried it afore! But I believe I'll always be a pirate at night when you've got more chance to git away."

"You're right as usual, Sol," said Henry as he, too, increased his stroke.

They pulled away for some time without further words, and the pursuers, also, settled into silence save for an encouraging shout now and then to the rowers. Henry thought that he discerned both Alvarez and Braxton Wyatt in the foremost boat and he could imagine the rage and chagrin of both.

"I believe they're gaining," he said presently to Sol.

"Yes," replied the shiftless one, "that big boat thar is creepin' up."

"Crack!" came a report and a bullet embedded itself in the stout wood of their own boat. Both recognized the report. It was not that of a Spanish musket, but the lashing fire of a Kentucky rifle like their own.

"That was Braxton Wyatt," said Henry. "I thought I could make him out in that boat. He's got a rifle that reaches and he's a danger."

"Why don't you talk back?" asked Shif'less Sol.

"I will," replied Henry. "We're not at war with Spain, but we are surely at war with Braxton Wyatt. I think the second man in the boat is Braxton. Hold her steady just a second, Sol."

Henry shipped his oars, knelt a moment, and up went the long, slender barrel of his Kentucky rifle. As he looked down the sight he was sure that the man at whom he was aiming was Braxton Wyatt, and he was sure, moreover, that he would not miss. But a feeling for which he could not account made him deflect slightly the muzzle of his weapon.

Braxton Wyatt richly deserved death for crimes already done and he would be, as long as he lived, a deadly menace to the border. But Henry felt that he could not be both judge and executioner. He and Braxton Wyatt had been young boys together. So, when he deflected the muzzle of his rifle, it was to turn the bullet from his heart to his arm.

The rifle flashed, the sharp report echoed over the flowing waters, and a cry of pain came from the pursuing boat, which quickly slackened its speed.

"I hit him in the arm only," said Henry.

Shif'less Sol glanced at his comrade and he understood, but he made no criticism.

"Ef you've stung him in the arm," he said, "it ain't likely that he kin use that rifle o' his ag'in, an' I notice, too, since you shot that them oarsmen ain't burnin' up with zeal. Now you row, Henry, while I plunk a bullet in among 'em, an' they'll burn less than ever."

Shif'less Sol fired. He did not shoot to kill, but his bullet whistled unpleasantly near the heads of the rowers, and, as he had predicted, they rapidly lost zeal. The captured boat slid swiftly ahead.

"Here we are among the trees," said Henry. "Now, Sol, keep on rowing and I'll look out that we don't run into anything."

The swollen waters rose far up on the trunks of the trees, which grew thickly here, and Sol rowed slowly, making no noise save a slight ripple, while Henry pushed the prow of the boat away from the trunks and the bushes. It was very dark here and in a few minutes the pursuing boats were shut out of sight.

"Thar ain't eyes enough in that Spanish camp to find us now," said Shif'less Sol.

But they rowed deeper and deeper into the forest, and then, in a cluster of trees where they could not be seen ten feet away, they stopped and listened. Not a sound but the lapping of the water came to their ears.

"We'll take a good rest and then row Northward, still keeping in the forest," said Henry.

They shipped their oars and drew long, deep breaths of relief and satisfaction.

"Henry," said Shif'less Sol presently in a tone of great exultation, "have you noticed that this is a shore enough gall-yun that we've took? We didn't know it, but we jest boarded and sailed away with a real treasure ship. Look!"

He opened a locker and took out two fine ornamented guns. "What are these?" he said.

"Why, those are fowling pieces," replied Henry, "and they are of the very best English make. We'll certainly borrow those, Sol."

"Yes, an' this end o' the locker is full o' powder an' shot fur 'em. Thar's no lack o' ammunition, an' look here, Henry, at these!"

He took out of another locker three beautiful rapiers with polished hilts and decorated scabbards.

"Spaniards like sech tools ez these," continued the shiftless one, "an' they're mighty purty to look at, but ez fur me give me my good old Kentucky rifle. At a hundred yards what chance would them things have ag'in me?"

"We'll borrow them, too," said Henry. "We may have a use for them later on. They're weapons that never have to be reloaded."

Sol drew forth one of the small swords and held it up so a shaft of moonlight fell across the blade, and showed the keen edge.

"They're such fine weepins they must hey belonged to that thar Spanish commander hisself," he said. "After all, a thing like this mightn't be bad when you come to it right close. Mebbe Paul could handle it. You know Mr. Pennypacker used to teach him how to swing the sword. This is how it goes: Ah, ha! Aa ha! touched you thar! How's that my hearty!"

Shif'less Sol lunged at the night air, slashed, cut, swept his sword around in circles, and then laughed again. But none of his exclamations was uttered above a whisper. Henry was forced to smile.

"Put it down, Sol," he said, "and let's see what else we've got. It may be that we've taken Alvarez's own private boat."

Sol opened the locker again, and held up a curiously shaped stone jug, which he contemplated for a few moments. Then he took out the topper, smelled the contents, and looked appreciatively at his comrade.

"Henry," he said, "I'm going to risk it."

"It's no risk."

Sol turned the jug up to his lips, took a mouthful, which he held for a moment or two, and then swallowed. After waiting a half minute he uttered a deep sigh of content, and rubbed his chest.

"It tasted good all the way down, Henry," he said. "Here's something writ over the label, but I guess it's Spanish, another o' them useless tongues, an' so it tells nothin'."

"Put it back," said Henry. "It's some of those fancy liquors, but we'll keep it for times when we're wet or cold or tired out."

"All right," said Sol, "an' here's three more little jugs like it."

"What else do you find?" asked Henry.

"Oh, look at these, will you!" exclaimed Sol, holding up two splendid double barreled duelling pistols of Spanish make.

"Now I'm sure that this is the boat of Alvarez himself," said Henry. "Such fine things as these could belong only to the Commander. Those are duelling pistols, Sol, but they can be made mighty useful, too, for our defense in case of a pinch. We'll keep them, too."

The shiftless one put them back and opening another locker uttered a little cry of delight.

"A hull carpenter shop!" he exclaimed. "Jest look, Henry! A fine axe, hammers an' hatchets, an' saws an' augers an' a lot o' other things pow'ful useful to fellers like us that have to cut an' bore their own way out here in the woods. This is shorely one o' them gall-yuns that Paul tells us about, an' I guess we're about ez highfalutin' an lucky pirates ez any o' them."

"You're right, Sol," said Henry. "This boat is a great find, and it's lawful prize as they began the war upon us by seizing Paul. Keep on looking, Sol."

"Here's some beautiful blankets," continued the shiftless one. "Guess they were made to trade with the Injuns. But it's more'n likely that this here most gorg-y-us one will, on occasions, shelter, warm, purtect an' otherwise care fur the deservin' body o' one Solomon Hyde, a highly valooable citizen o' the new country they call Kentucky. An' say, Henry, what do you call this?"

His voice took a rapidly rising inflection, as he held up a glittering garment, puffed with magnificent lace.

"That," said Henry, "is what they call a doublet, and I should say that it is the finest one belonging to Captain Alvarez. Oh, won't he be angry!"

Sol slipped off his hunting shirt, and slipped on the doublet.

"It's a little tight in the shoulders," he said, "but I could wear it in a pinch, that is, I guess I'd hey to wear it in a pinch. Say, Henry, ain't I a beauty?"

He stood up in the boat and turned slowly around and around, his arms extended and the doublet glittering. Henry leaned against the side of the boat and laughed.

"It doesn't suit you, Sol," he replied, "you're a fine looking man, but it's in your own way, not the Spanish way."

Sol took off the garment, folded it up carefully, and put it back in the locker.

"Anyway, I'm goin' to claim it," he said. "I want it to make Jim Hart jealous. An', Henry, thar's a lot more things here, a little tent all rolled up, some bottles o' medicine, some more clothes, two big bottles o' brandy, and a whole lot o' housekeepin' truck, like pins an' needles an' thread, an' them things that kin be pow'ful useful to us on a long journey. An' jumpin' Jehoshaphat, Henry, here's a little bag o' silver an' gold!"

"Put that back!" said Henry hastily. "Put it back, Sol! Their goods we'll borrow as fair spoil, but we won't touch their money. Put it back and none of us will ever take that bag out again."

"You're right, Henry," said Sol soberly. "I wouldn't handle a single coin in that bag thar. Here she goes right under the bottom o' everything in this locker, an' thar she'll stay. But, Henry, our gall-yun is the biggest find we ever made in our lives. I never dreamed o' travelin' in sech style an' comfort down the Mississippi."

"Do you think it's going to grow lighter?" asked Henry.

"No," replied Sol decidedly. "It's been a shy kind o' moon to-night, an' it's a gittin' so much shyer that it's plumb afraid to show its face. In three minutes it will hide behind a big cloud that's edgin' up over thar, an' we won't see it no more to-night."

"Then we'll pull down to the edge of the woods and see if the Spaniards have given up the chase."

"An' be keerful not to run into any snags or sech like. We don't want to wreck a magnificent gallyun like this when we've got her."

They had been lying in the flooded forest about two hours, and now they pulled very cautiously toward the main stream. It was a large boat for two men, however strong, to handle, but they got through without colliding with snag or tree trunk, or making any noise that could be heard a dozen yards away.

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