The Free Rangers

by Joseph A. Altsheler

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter VI. Battle and Storm

It was yet dark, in fact much darker than it had been just after the fog lifted, and the dawn was a full three hours away. Although the flooded area of forest on the western shore was much less than on the eastern, it was sufficient to furnish ample concealment for the boat, and, when they tied up amid dense foliage, they could not see the main stream behind them. Jim Hart laid down his oars, stood up, and carefully cracked his joints.

"I am tired," he said. "Never wuz I so tired afore in my life."

"But, Jim," said Shif'less Sol, "Think what a pow'ful lively naval battle you hey been through. Ef you ever git a wife - which I doubt, 'cause you ain't beautiful, Jim - you kin tell her how once you rowed right over a great Injun warship. Mebbe, Jim, she'll believe all them fancy details you'll stick on to it.

"I know I ain't beautiful," said Long Jim thoughtfully, "an' I don't know ez I want to be, but ef any woman wuz to marry me she'd most likely believe whatever I told her, bein' ez I have a truthful countenance, but ez fur you, Sol, anybody kin tell by lookin' at you that ef you wuz to ketch in this river a little cat-fish six inches long you can tel' them that didn't know that it wuz a whale."

"Seems to me," said Tom Ross, "that I wuz waked up kinder suddin a few hours ago. I wuz in the middle uv a most bee-yu-ti-ful nap, and I know right whar I stopped it. I'm goin' tack an' pick up that nap at the exact place whar I left off."

Without another word he pulled his blanket over him and stretched himself on a seat. In a minute or two he was sound asleep. Tom Ross was a veteran campaigner. He not only knew what to do, but he could and would do it.

"Paul, you and Jim follow him," said Henry, "I'll keep what's left of the watch with Sol."

Jim was treading the easy path of slumber in five minutes, but it took Paul at least ten to pass through the gates. Henry and Sol sat in the boat, silent but watchful.

"We're between two fires," whispered Henry at last. "I don't think that war party will give up just yet, and maybe we'd better stick here in the woods for a while, on the chance that they think we belong to the Spanish force and have rejoined it."

"We've got to stay in hidin' fur a spell, that's shore," said Shif'less Sol. "We might stick here all day. We kin overtake the Spaniards any time, cause we have only one road to foller an' that's the river."

Henry nodded and they settled back to the watch and silence. Their three comrades stretched on seats, lockers, or the boat's bottom, slept soundly, and they could hear their regular breathing. But they heard nothing else save the light lapping of the water against the tree trunks.

Dawn came, golden and beautiful. Tom Ross opened his eyes. "Anything happened?" he asked.

"No," replied Henry, "and we are not going to move yet. Sleep on."

Tom closed his eyes again, and in a minute was back in the pleasant land of slumber. The other two did not awake and Henry and Sol still did not stir. From the leafy arbor in which "The Galleon" was moored, they were intently watching the surface of the river. An hour passed and the sun rose higher and higher, flooding the surface of the great stream with golden beams.

"Do you see anything, Henry?" asked Sol.

"Yes, I think there's a canoe among the trees on the opposite shore."

"I reckoned that I saw it, too, but I wuzn't certain. Must be a scout canoe."

"Do you see anything to the southward, Sol?"

"I reckoned that I saw somethin' thar, too, an' I took it fur smoke."

"The Spanish camp, of course."

"0' course."

"And I think the Indians are spying upon it. They are quite sure now that we were a part of the Spanish force."

"They think they know it, an' they'll hang 'roun' until to-night, when they're more'n likely to shoot into the Spanish camp."

"Which won't hurt us, Sol."

"Not a leetle bit. We kin sing all the time, 'dog eat dog, go it one, go it tother.'"

"Instead of singing," said Henry smiling, "we can put in most of the time sleeping."

"Both please me," said Shif'less Sol, rubbing his hands gleefully.

Everything befell as they thought it would. Other canoes appeared at the edge of the wood on the far shore, but on every occasion further down the river. There was no doubt in the minds of the watchful observers aboard "The Galleon" that they were spying upon the Spanish camp and meditated an attack at night. It was equally certain that the Spaniards knew nothing of the Indians' presence. All the five were now awake and they rejoiced at the prospect.

"I see an easy day commin' to me," said Shif'less Sol luxuriously. "'Tain't often that a lazy man like me kin hev sech a good time an' I'm goin' to make the most o' it."

"I think," said Henry, "that while the Indians are busy with the Spaniards we'd better try to fix up that sail. We don't need a tent and we do need a sail. Some time or other, when we get in a pinch, the sail might do the pulling, leaving the rowers free to use their rifles."

"Jest ez I might hey expected," said Sol in a tone of disgust. "All ready for rest, fixed fur it most bee-yu-ti-ful-ly, an' told instead that I must go to work. This world shorely ain't kind to a good man."

Once more the staunch ship, "The Galleon," proved herself to be a treasure house. They found in the lockers plenty of rope and stout cord, and they cut in the forest a stout young sapling which they made of the right length, peeled off the bark, and adjusted in rude fashion, as a mast. They also made a boom and then rigged a single sail, somewhat after the fashion of the cat-boat of the present day.

This would have been an impossible task to them, had not "The Galleon" been so well provided with axes, saws, hammers, other valuable tools, and cord and nails. The mast could be taken down in an emergency, but they were all of the opinion that the sail would draw, and draw well. It might not always be easy to control it, but "The Galleon" was built in Spanish fashion, heavy, deep, and square, and it would take a great deal to make her capsize.

While the others worked one watched, and the boats of the Indians were seen again at the edge of the far forest. The last time they saw them they were so far down that they were almost opposite the point where the Spaniards lay, which indicated two things to them, first the certainty that Alvarez had not moved, and second that "The Galleon" and her crew were absolutely safe for the time being, where they lay.

"I suppose that Alvarez is in no hurry and decided to take a day of rest," said Henry.

They finished their own labors late in the afternoon and contemplated the mast and sail with pride.

"Now that it's done, I'm glad that it hez been done," said Shif'less Sol. "It'll save me a lot o' work hereafter. It would be jest like you fellers to make me git callous spots all over the inside o' my hands, when the hide on Jim Hart's is already so thick it wouldn't hurt him to do all his rowin' an' mine, too."

"I jest love to see you work, Sol," said Long Jim Hart. "I can't enjoy my rest real good, 'less at the same time I'm layin' on my back watchin' you heavin' away."

Nevertheless, all took a long rest though maintaining a vigilant watch, and, with pleasure, they saw a dark night come on. When the twilight was completely gone they steered once more for the main stream, not using their sail yet, because of the boughs and bushes.

"We've got to keep in the edge of the forest," whispered Henry, and in that manner they crept cautiously southward. After a while they stopped suddenly and all exclaimed together. They distinctly heard the sound of rifle shots straight toward the south and perhaps a mile away.

"The savages hev attacked," said Shif'less Sol in a whisper. "Go it, Spaniard, go it, Injun, one may lick and tother may lick, but whether one may lick tother or tother lick which, I don't care."

They pulled a little nearer to the last line of trees in the water and there off to the south they saw the little pinkish dots that marked the rifle and musket fire. It was too far away for them to see anything else, but they heard distinctly the intermittent crackle of the shots.

"Neither will win," said Henry. "The Spaniards are too strong to be defeated, but they won't venture the unknown terrors of the river at night. The Indians, who are in their canoes, will draw off when they find they are not doing much harm."

"Wish we could put up that sail," said Shif'less Sal, who was still at the oars. "I'm shore gittin' a callous lump in the pa'm o' my hand."

"It wouldn't do, Sol," said Henry. "We're going to run past a battle, and we mean to lie as low as possible."

Paul again steered, Henry sat, rifle in hand, and the others rowed. They took a diagonal course across the stream once more, but this time toward the eastern shore. They advanced slowly, hugging the dark. Fortunately there was no moon and the dusk came close up to the boat.

"That's a right noisy fight," said Shif'less Sal, looking toward the south, where pink and red spots of flame still appeared in the dark and the rattling fire of rifle and musket grew louder.

"More noise than anything else," said Tom Ross, "but it keeps 'em pow'ful busy an' that's a good thing fur us."

They were now near the flooded forest on the eastern shore, and they moved slowly along in its shadow, still watching the distant battle. It lightened a little, the rim of a moon came out, and they saw toward the western bank the dark silhouettes of canoes moving back and forth on the water. Flashes came from the canoes and returning flashes came from the bank.

"Go it, Spaniard, go it, Injun, go it, one, go it, tother," muttered Shif'less Sal again.

"The Galleon" slowly passed by in the darkness. The pink and red dots went out and the sound of the rifle fire died behind hem. They could neither see nor hear anything more of the battle, and all were of the opinion that it would soon cease by a sort of mutual agreement of the contestants.

Paul once more turned the head of the boat toward the middle of the stream, and she swung gaily into the current, where her speed soon increased greatly.

"We can fix up our mast and hoist our sail now," said Henry. "Since there is nobody to look, it won't hurt us to make speed for a while."

It required some time and exertion to put the mast in place and then they unfurled the sail. They were rather clumsy about it from lack of experience, but the tent cloth filled with the north wind, and "The Galleon" leaped forward in the water, her broad nose parting the stream swiftly, while the youthful hearts of Henry and Paul swelled with exultation.

Shif'less Sal drew in his oars and bestowed upon the sail a look of deep approval.

"That's the most glorious sight that hez met the eyes o' a tired man in a year," he said. " Blow, Mr. Wind, blow! an' let me rest."

The others also rested, but Sol and Henry put all their attention upon the boom and sail. They did not intend to be wrecked by ignorance or any sudden flaw in the wind. The breeze, however, was steady and strong, and "The Galleon" continued to move gallantly before it.

They sailed for three or four hours and during the latter part of the time they coasted along the western bank. There they came to the mouth of a small river, thickly lined on both shores with gigantic trees.

"I think we'd better take down our sail and run up this," said Henry. "We can go back some distance and hide close to the bank. The Spaniards of course will not dream of coming up it, and we can stay here until they go by."

"A safe and pleasant haven as long as it is needed," said Paul.

They took down the sail and pulled at least a mile up the little river. There they tied close to the bank, and, happy over their success, sought sleep, all except the watch, the night passing without disturbance.

The day came, again unclouded and beautiful, and the five regarded it, the boat, and themselves with a great deal of satisfaction.

"I'm thinkin' that our treasure ship, the gall-yun, ought to hev the most credit," said Shif'less Sal. "She brought us past all them warrin' people in great style. Without her we'd hev a hard time, follerin' the Spaniards to New Or-lee-yuns."

After breakfast they remained awhile in the boat, content to lie still and await events. Everywhere around them was the deep forest, oak, hickory, chestnut, maple, elm, and all the other noble trees that flourish in the great valley. Just above them was a low point in the bank of the little river and they could see that it was trodden by many feet.

"Game comes down to drink thar," said Shif'less Sol.

"Lie still and let's see," said Paul.

The boat was almost hidden in the thick foliage that overhung the river, and nobody on it stirred. Two deer presently walked gingerly to the water, drank daintily, and then walked as gingerly away. Soon a black bear followed them and shambled to the water's edge. He looked up and down the stream, but he saw nothing and the wind blowing from him toward the boat brought no dread odor to his sensitive nostrils. He drank, wrinkled his face in a comical manner, scratched himself with his left paw, and then shambled away. Shif'less Sol laughed.

"I'd hev to be hard pushed afore I shot that feller," he said. "Ain't the black bear a comic chap when he tries to be. I declare I hev a real feller feelin' fur him. I couldn't ever feel that way toward a panther. They always look mean an' they always are mean, but I could hobnob right along with a jolly, fat black bear."

"Yes," said Paul, looking dreamily far into the future. "It's a pity they have to go."

"Hey to go, what do you mean, Paul?" interrupted Long Jim Hart, as he cracked a joint or two.

"Why," replied Paul, "all this country will be settled up some day, and how can bears and panthers and buffaloes roam wild on farms?"

Long Jim looked at him with eyes slowly widening in wonder. "Paul," he exclaimed, "you do say the beatinest things sometimes! Now what do you mean by sayin' that all this country will be settled up? Why, thar ain't enough people in the world fur that, an' thar won't never be."

"Yes there will be, Jim," said Paul decisively, "although it will not occur in your time."

"Not if I lived to be a hundred years old, Paul, or mebbe a hundred an' twenty, 'cause I'm a pow'ful healthy man?"

"No, not if you lived to be a hundred and twenty."

Long Jim heaved a deep sigh of relief - he had the true soul of the woodsman.

"That's mighty relievin' an' soothin'," he said. "Think uv havin' to walk every day through cleared ground! Think uv lookin' every day fur a bee-yu-tiful sky only to see cabin-smoke! Think uv drawin' your sights on what you fust take to be a fine buffalo, an' then find out is only your neighbor's old cow! Think uv your goin' off to a river to trap beaver, an' findin' nothin' thar but a saw-mill! Think uv your havin' to meet mornin' an' evenin' all kinds uv people that you don't care nothin' about! Think uv your goin' out on a great huntin' expedition only to find all them noble trees cut down a thousan' miles every way, an' nothin' wanderin' around thar but old lame horses an' gruntin' pigs! I'm plum' thankful that I'm livin' at the time I do, when ther's lots uv countries you don't know nothin' about, an' lots uv fun guessin' what they are, an' mostly guessin' wrong. An' I'm glad too that I didn't live in them old days that Sol tells about, when people had to build walls around theirselves in towns, an' wuz afraid to go out in the woods an' hunt bear an' buffalo like men!"

Jim Hart, after this speech, so long for him, stopped for want of breath, and Shif'less Sol, regarding him with a look of deep sympathy, held out a brown and sinewy hand.

"Jim Hart," he said, "shake. I'll be proud to hev you do it. You ain't no beauty, Jim, an' somehow you an' me are kinder disputatious now an' then, but you are lettin' flow at this minute a solid stream o' wisdom, a fountain, ez Paul would say in his highfalutin' way, at which everybody ought to drink."

Jim Hart also reached out a brown and sinewy hand and the two met in a powerful and friendly clasp.

"I'm like Jim," continued Shif'less Sol. "'Tain't what you git that makes you happy, but thar's a heap in bein' suited. I'm glad I'm livin' when I am, an' whar I am. Me an' things suit each other. What Paul says may come true, but it won't bust my heart, 'cause I won't be here to see."

An hour or so later Henry and Sol went through the woods and watched for the Spanish fleet. They saw it presently moving in single file down the Mississippi, and showing, so far as they could judge, no signs of damage.

"'Twas ez we guessed last night it would be, a dogfall," said Shif'less Sol, "lots o' noise and not much done. Now that Injun crowd hez drawed off to the east, an' I think we've seed the last o' them, while the Spaniards, thinkin' they've had enough o' excitement, will keep straight on to New Or-leeyuns."

"I've no doubt you're right," said Henry, "and we'll follow to-night. We'll let them take a good start."

They watched the little fleet until it passed out of sight down the river and then returned to their own boat. There they devoted the day to further preparations for a long journey. As game was close at hand in such abundance, they shot two deer and took the meat on board. They also undertook to provide shelter, as this was the period of the spring rains and they did not wish to be drenched or have their stores damaged. Fortunately they found a tarpaulin in one of the lockers and, taking this and the two deerskins, they united all in a larger covering which they could spread over nearly the whole boat. This all considered a highly important task, and they meant to enlarge the tarpaulin still more as they killed more deer. Meanwhile they let it lie in the sun, in order that the deerskins might dry.

Their tasks occupied them until about 10 o'clock at night and then they decided to start again, thinking that night traveling would be safer for a day or two. They rowed down the river until they entered the Mississippi, and then they set their sail again.

No other human beings were afloat on the river, at least not within the range of their vision, but there was a plenty of floating trees and other debris brought down by the spring flood. Careful steering was necessary, but they went on without any accident. Shif'less Sol, however, gazed up at the moon with an unquiet eye.

"She looks too soft an' fleecy," he said, speaking of the moon. "When she's peepin' through them lacy-lookin' clouds it means that trouble is about to stir."

"We'll keep a watch," said Henry.

They continued until midnight and Sol's troubles still kept off, but about that time all noticed a sudden increase of the breeze, accompanied by an equal increase of dampness.

"Something like a storm is coming and you were right, Sol," said Henry. "Now, I wish we knew a lot about sailing."

"But as we don't," said Paul, "I think we'd better take in our sail at once."

They quickly did so and their precaution was wise. The wind, blowing out of the north, began to shriek, and the boat, even without the aid of a sail, leaped forward. Driving clouds suddenly shut out the moon, and the yellow waters of the giant stream, lashed by the wind, began to heave and surge in waves like those of the sea. The treasure ship, "The Galleon," pitched and rocked like a real galleon in the long swells of the Pacific, but the five knew that she was perfectly safe. The broad, square Spanish boat could not be swamped.

"Thank God, we've taken in that sail," said Henry. "We're going to have a night of it! Do you think we'd better pull for the shore?"

"Not now," replied Shif'less Sol, "the wind's risin' too fast, an' we'd hit a tree or a snag, shore. Better keep ez nearly in the middle o' the river ez we kin!"

The soundness of Sol's judgment became apparent at once. The shriek of the wind rose to a scream and then a roar. The night became pitchy dark. They could see nothing around them but a narrow circle of muddy waters heaving violently. Under the far horizon in the south and west, low, sullen thunder began to mutter. Suddenly the sky parted before a tremendous flash of lightning that blazed for a moment across the heavens and then went out, leaving the night darker than before. But in that moment they caught a vivid glimpse of the flooded forest, the great waste of troubled waters, and all the vast desolation about them. It was weird and uncanny to the last degree, and despite all the dangers and hardships through which they had passed on land, the five steadied their nerves only with supreme efforts of the will.

"We've forgot the covering for our boat," exclaimed Henry. "Paul, keep her steady, while the rest of you help me."

It required the strength of four to spread the tarpaulin in the wind and make it all secure, but they were a strong four and the task was quickly done. Meanwhile the turbulence of air and water were increasing. The waves on the river rose higher and higher and the wind drove the foam in their faces. The thunder, no longer a mutter, became one terrific peal after another, and the lightning burned across the great stream in flash after flash.

"I sp'ose it's jest the same ez bein' at sea," said Sol between crashes. "I don't know much choice between bein' drowned in the Mississippi, which I know is muddy, an' the sea, which they say is salt."

"No danger of either!" said Paul cheerfully, "but I'm glad this is such a wide river. So long as we can keep the boat straight there is not much risk of being driven into anything."

Then everyone jumped suddenly to his feet. There was a tremendous crash of thunder louder than all the rest, and the whole river swam for a moment in a burning glare. The lightning seemed to have struck upon the surface of the water not far from them. Then, when the lightning and the thunder passed, they heard only the wind and saw only the darkness.

"This ain't so easy ez it looked," said Shif'less Sol in a plaintive tone. "It's nice rid'in on a boat, but if the lightning she strike 'The Gall-yun,' whar are we? I'd a heap rather on die land."

"That must have been its climax," said Paul, "and if so look out for the rain."

Paul was right. The lightning began to decline in intensity and the thunder sank in volume. The wind died rapidly. Yet there was no increase of light, and presently they heard afar a rushing sound. Great drops beat like hail upon their tarpaulin, and all except the man who was steering snuggled to cover. The steersman happened to be Shif'less Sol this time, and he wrapped one of the new Spanish blankets tightly around him from heel to throat.

"Now let it come," murmured the indomitable man.

It took him at his word and it came with a sweep and a roar. The heavens opened and a deluge fell out. The thunder and lightning ceased entirely and from the black skies the rain poured in amazing quantities. Now and then all except the steersman were forced to bail out the boat, but mostly they kept to cover under their tarpaulin, which was a good one.

Shif'less Sol held the good ship "The Galleon," in the middle of the current, and all the time he strained his eyes ahead for floating debris and particularly for the terrible snags which were such a danger in the early Mississippi. Keen as were his eyes, he could see little ahead of him but the black water, now beaten into a comparatively smooth plain by the steady rain.

Shif'less Sol had taken off his cap and the rain drove steadily on the back of his head; but his body, thanks to the thick blanket wrapped so tightly around his neck, remained dry. Shif'less Sol was not uncomfortable. Neither was he alarmed or unhappy. There was a strain of chivalry and romance in his forest-bred soul, and the situation appealed to him. He was in a strong boat, his four faithful comrades were with him, and he was piercing a new mystery, that of a vast and unknown river. The spirit that has always driven on the great explorers and adventurers thrilled in every nerve of Solomon Hyde, nicknamed the Shiftless One, but not at all deserving the title.

The boat went steadily on in the blackness and the rain, and Sol's soul swelled jubilantly within him. He could see perhaps thirty or forty feet ahead of him over the smooth plain of black water, and at an equal distance to right and left the black wall rose, also. So far as feeling went, the land might be a thousand miles away, and he was glad of it.

"Which sea are we ploughin' through now, Paul?" he said. "Is it the Atlantic or the Pacific or one I ain't heard tell of a-tall, a-tall? But which ever it is, I'm Christopher Columbus the second, on my way to discover a new continent bigger than all the others put together! Jumpin' Jehoshaphat! but that was a narrow escape! It made my flesh creep!"

Sol had shifted the boat in her course, just in time to escape an ominous snag, but in a moment his joyousness came back, and without giving Paul time to answer, he continued:

"A boat goin' down stream on a river is shorely the right way o' travelin' fur a lazy man like me. I wish it wuz all like this!"

The violence of the rain abated somewhat in an hour or so, but it continued to come down for a long time. Far after midnight the clouds began to part. A damp patch of sky showed, but it was clear sky nevertheless and soon it broadened.

The flooded world rose up before the five voyagers, the vast river, still black in the night light, floating trees, perhaps rooted up by the stream from shores thousands of miles to the north and west, the low, dim outline of forest to right and left, and all around them an immense desolation. Everything to other minds would have been gigantic, somber, and menacing. Gigantic it was to the five, but neither somber nor menacing. Instead it told them of safety and comfort and it was, at all times, full of a varied and supreme interest.

As soon as the light was strong enough for them to find a suitable place they pulled the boat among the trees on the western shore and tied it up securely. Here they made a critical examination and found that none of their precious goods had suffered a wetting. Powder, provisions, clothing, all were dry and every one except the watch went to sleep with a sound conscience.

Return to the The Free Rangers Summary Return to the Joseph A. Altsheler Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson