The Free Rangers

by Joseph A. Altsheler

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Chapter VIII. The Chateau of Beaulieu

They noticed one day a high bluff shooting up on the eastern bank and running along for some distance. It was clothed in dense green forest, and it was rather a welcome break in the monotony of the low shores.

"A big city will be built there some day," said the prophetic Paul.*

[* It is probable that the bluff, indicated by Paul, is the one on which the present city of Memphis stands.]

"Now, Paul, why in tarnation do you say that?" exclaimed Tom Ross.

"Why, because it's such a good place. It's a high hill on a great river so well suited to navigation, and it has a vast, rich country behind it."

But Tom Ross shook his head.

"Seems to me, Paul," he said, "that you're bitin' off a lot more'n you can chaw. Things that are to happen a hundred years from now ain't never happenin' fur me."

But Paul merely smiled and held to his opinion.

On the following day they tied up at a point, where the river began a sharp and wide curve around a long, narrow peninsula. It was just about dark when they stopped and, as usual, they were able to run the boat into dense foliage at the margin, where not even the keenest eye could see it.

"We've got plenty of goose and duck left over from dinner," said Henry, "so I'm thinking, Jim, that you'd better not light the fire on your bricks tonight."

"All right," replied Jim, "I don't mind restin'. I feel about ez lazy ez Sol Hyde looks."

But Henry Ware had another and more important thing in mind. His was the keenest eye of them all, and just before landing he had noticed to the southward and on the other side of the peninsula a faint, dark line against the edge of the sunset. Few, even with an eye good enough to see it, would have taken it for anything but a wisp of cloud, but the physical sense of Henry Ware, so acute that it bordered upon intuition, was not deceived.

"Sol," he said after they had eaten a little, "let's walk across this neck of land and explore a bit."

"It's a dark night to be traveling," said Paul. But Henry only laughed. Tom Ross may have had his suspicions, but he did not deem it worth while to say anything. He knew that Henry and Shif'less Sol were quite competent to achieve any task that they might be undertaking.

Henry and Sol strolled carelessly into the bush, but before they had gone a dozen steps their whole manner changed. Each became eager and alert.

"What is it, Henry?" asked Shif'less Sol. "What have you seed?"

"Smoke! The smoke of a camp fire and it's on the other side of this neck. I think it's the camp of Alvarez. He must have been going more slowly than we thought."

"We'll soon find out," said Shif'less Sol, as they advanced. But the task was not as easy as they had thought. The peninsula was very low and the greater part of it had been overflowed recently. Their feet, no matter how lightly they stepped, sank in the mire, and when they pulled them out again the mud emitted a sticky sigh. An owl perched in a tree, high above the marsh, began to hoot dismally, and Shif'less Sol uttered a growl.

"I wish we had the big, dry woods o' Kentucky to go through," he whispered to Henry. "I am't much o' a mud-crawler."

"But as we haven't got those big, dry woods," Henry whispered back, "we'll have to crawl, creep, or walk through the mud."

It was about two miles across the neck, and as they went very slowly for fear of making noise, it took them a full hour to reach the other side, or to come near enough to see what might be there. Then they found that Henry's belief, or rather intuition, was right.

They could see quite well from the dense covert. All the Spanish boats were tied up at the shore and two or three fires had been built for the purposes of cooking. The soldiers in their picturesque costumes lounged about. The hum of conversation and now and then a laugh arose.

Henry soon marked Francisco Alvarez. The Spanish leader sat on a little heap of boughs on the highest and dryest spot in the camp, and all who approached him did so with every sign of respect-if they spoke it was hat in hand.

The firelight fell in a red blaze across the face of Francisco Alvarez and revealed every feature in minute detail to the keen eyes in the covert. It was a thin, haughty face, clear-cut and cruel, but just now its air was that of satisfaction, as if in the opinion of Francisco Alvarez all things were going well with his plans. Henry believed that he could guess his thoughts.

"He thinks that the Spanish are already committed against us and that he and Braxton Wyatt with a force of Spaniards and the tribes will yet destroy our settlements in Kentucky."

Thinking of Braxton Wyatt he looked for him and, as he looked, the renegade came from a point near the shore toward the commander. It was evident that Wyatt had been faring well. His frontier dress had been partly replaced with gay Spanish garments. He now wore a cap with a feather in it, and a velvet doublet. He, too, had a most complacent look.

Wyatt approached Alvarez and the commander courteously invited him to a seat on the hillock near him. When he took the seat a soldier brought the renegade a cup of wine, and he drank, first lifting the cup toward Alvarez as if he drank a toast to the success of the alliance. There could be no doubt about the perfect understanding of the two; and Henry's anger rose. It was impossible to set a limit on what a ruthless and determined man like Francisco Alvarez might do.

Wyatt rose presently after a nod to the commander and walked among the soldiers. He seemed to have no particular object in view and his strollings brought him near to the edge of the swampy forest.

"Perhaps he's spying about, and will come into the woods where we are," whispered Henry. "Maybe he has those maps and plans upon him, and it would be a great thing to get them. I don't believe he could make a new set soon."

"It's a risky thing to try," said Shif'less Sol, "but ef he comes in here, an' you think it the best thing to do, I'm ready to help."

The two crouched a little lower and remained breathless. Braxton Wyatt strolled on. He was making a sort of vague inspection of the camp, but he was really thinking more about the great triumph that he saw ahead. Since he had turned renegade, leaving his own white race to join the Indians, a thing that was sometimes done, he had been stung by many defeats and he wished a great revenge that would pour oil upon all these wounds.

A bad nature grows worse with failure. Seeking to injure his former people and failing at every turn, Braxton Wyatt hated them more and more all the time. His wrath was particularly directed against the five who had been such great instruments in sending his careful plans astray. His scheme with the Indian league had failed chiefly through them, but he felt that he could now come with a Spanish force that would prove irresistible. That was why he glowed with internal warmth and pride. The settlements would be destroyed and he, in fact, would be the destroyer.

Braxton Wyatt entered the edge of the woods, still occupied with the cruel triumph that was to be his. He did not notice that the foliage was gradually shutting out the firelight. Presently he saw, or believed that he saw, a shadowy but terrible figure. It was the figure of the one whom he dreaded most on earth.

It was but a glimpse of a form, seen through the bushes, but Wyatt's blood turned cold in every vein. He uttered a half-choked cry, and running back through the bushes, sprang into the firelight. Two or three Spanish soldiers looked at him in amazement, but he was not a coward, and he had pride of a kind. As soon as he leaped back into the firelight he felt that he had made a fool of himself. Henry Ware could not have been there - he and his comrades had been left behind long ago. Coming suddenly out of his thoughts, he had been deceived in the dark by a bush and imagination had done the rest. Yes, it was only fancy!

"A rattlesnake! I nearly trod on him," he said in broken Spanish words that he had picked up, and then walked in as careless a manner as he could assume toward the mound where Francisco Alvarez sat. But he could not wholly control himself - the shock had been too great - and his body yet trembled. He did not know it, but the pallor of his face showed through the tan, and Alvarez noticed it.

"You have had a fright, Senior Wyatt," he said in his precise, cold English. "What is it?"

"Not a fright," replied Wyatt in tones that he sought to make indifferent, "but a start. I nearly trod on a rattlesnake that lay coiled ready to strike, and I got away just in time. The Spaniard regarded him with a penetrating look, but the chilly blue eyes expressed nothing. Yet Francisco Alvarez thought that a bold woodsman like Braxton Wyatt would not show so much fear after a harmless passage with any kind of a snake.

"Do you think the five, the party that you said were so much to be dreaded, are still following us?" he asked presently.

The pallor showed again for a moment through the tan in Braxton Wyatt's face, but he answered again as carelessly as he could:

"It may be. I hate them, but I do not deny that they are bold and resourceful. They have a good boat, and they may follow; but what harm could they do?"

"As I told you, they might go before Bernardo Galvez, our Governor General at New Orleans, and spoil the pretty plan that you, and I have formed. Galvez is - as he calls himself - a Liberal. He would help these rebels and fight England. How can a Spaniard lend himself to the cause of Republican rebels and injure monarchy? Cannot he foresee, cannot he look ahead a little and tell what rebel success means? It would in the end be as great a blow to Spain as to England. If Kaintock is permitted to grow she will threaten Louisiana. These men in their buckskins are daring and dangerous and we must attend to them!"

The Spaniard clenched his hands in anger, and the blue light of his eyes was singularly cruel.

"Galvez is a fool," he continued. "He is not allowing the English to trade at New Orleans, but he is giving the American rebels full chance. He has allowed one, Pollock, Oliver Pollock, to establish a base there. This Pollock has formed a company of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston merchants, and they are sending arms and ammunition in fleets of canoes up the Mississippi and then up the Ohio to Fort Pitt, where they are unloaded and then taken eastward by land for the use of the rebels. A fleet of these canoes is to start about the time we arrive in New Orleans."

"We might meet it," suggested Braxton Wyatt, "and say that it attacked us."

The Spaniard smiled.

"The idea is not bad," he said, "and it could be done. We could sink their whole fleet of canoes with the pretty little cannon that we carry, and we could prove that they began the attack. But I do not choose to run the risk of compromising myself just yet. There is a more glorious enterprise afoot. Hark you, Senior Wyatt."

Braxton Wyatt leaned forward and listened attentively. Francisco Alvarez had drank of wine that evening, and his blood was warm. He, too, dreamed a great dream.

"You are a man of discretion and you have helped me. I speak to you as one devoted to my cause. If you should but breathe what I say to another I would first swear that it was a lie, and then deliver you to these five gentlemen, former friends of yours who would tear you in pieces."

Braxton Wyatt shivered again, and the Spaniard, seeing the shiver, laughed and was convinced.

"Why should I betray you?" said the renegade. "I have no motive to do so and every possible motive to keep faith."

"I know it," replied Alvarez, "and, that is why I speak. It is to your interest to be faithful to me and when my enterprise succeeds, as it certainly will, you shall have your proper share of the reward. Bernardo Galvez, as you know, is the Governor General of Louisiana, and his father is the Viceroy of Mexico. They are powerful, very powerful, and I am only a commander of troops under the son, but I, too, am powerful. My family is one of the first in Spain. It sits upon the very steps of the throne and more than once royal blood has entered our veins. I was a favorite at the court and I have many friends there. The King might be persuaded that Bernardo Galvez is not a fit representative of the royal interests in Louisiana."

Francisco Alvarez leaned a little forward and his blue eyes, usually so chill, sparkled now with fire. He was speaking of what lay next to his heart.

Braxton Wyatt, full of shrewdness and perception, understood at once.

"Bernardo Galvez might give way as Governor General of Louisiana," said the renegade, "to be succeeded by a better man, one who had the real interests of Spain at heart, one who would refuse to give the slightest aid to rebels, rebels who would strike against a throne!"

The Spaniard looked pleased.

"I see that you are a man of penetration, Senior Wyatt," he said, "and I am fortunate in having you as a lieutenant. You have divined my thought. I work, not for the interests of a man whose name has been mentioned by neither of us, but for the true interests of Spain and the divine right of kings. What is this miserable Kaintock which is springing up? We will crush it out as you would have crushed the rattlesnake! The people of New Orleans and Louisiana hate rebels! Why should they not? It is the rebels who in time will take Louisiana from us if they can, not England."

Braxton Wyatt smiled. He was delighted to the very center of his cunning heart. His plans and those of Alvarez marched well together. Each strengthened the other.

"I am with you to the end," he said.

"The end will be a glorious triumph," said the Spaniard in emphatic tones.

Meanwhile Henry and Shif'less Sol still lay in the thicket. Their project to seize Braxton Wyatt and strip him of the maps and plans had been defeated.

Henry knew that the renegade had caught a glimpse of him in the dusk and among the thick bushes and he expected an immediate alarm. But when Wyatt raised none, he and Sol lingered. They saw the renegade go to the Spaniard's side on the little mound, and they saw the two talk long and earnestly, but, of course, they could not understand a word of what was said.

"They look mighty pleased with one another," whispered Shif'less Sol, "so it's bound to mean that they're up to the worst sort o' mischief."

"Yes," replied Henry, "and that mischief is sure to be aimed at our people."

They waited about a half hour longer and then picked their way back through the marsh to their own side of the peninsula. It was now very late and Paul and Jim Hart were sound asleep in the boat, but Tom Ross was keeping vigilant guard.

"Wuz it them?" he asked.

"Yes," replied Henry. "They're camped on the other side of this neck, and Braxton Wyatt is still with them. There's big mischief afoot and we've got to keep on following, waiting our chance, which, I think, will come."

They did not start until noon the next day, in order to give the Spaniards a longer lead, and they rounded the neck of land very slowly lest they run into a trap. But when the river lay straight before them again they beheld nothing. They passed the point where the Spaniards had camped and saw the dead coals of their fires, but they did not stop, continuing instead their steady progress down stream.

It now grew hot upon the water. They had come many hundreds of miles since the start, and they were in a warmer climate. The character of the vegetation was changing. The cypress and the magnolia became frequent on the banks, and now and then they saw great, drooping live oaks. The soil seemed to grow softer and the water was more deeply permeated with mud. Although the flood was gone, the river spread out in places to a vast width, and even at its narrowest it was a gigantic stream. Other great, lazy rivers poured in their volume from east and west. Narrow, doublets, half-hidden in vegetation, extended from either side. There were bayous, although the five had not yet heard the name, and many of them swarmed with fish.

The warm air was heavy and languorous and now Shif'less Sol confessed.

"I'm gittin' too much o' it, even fur a lazy man," he said. "'Pears to me I'm always wantin' to sleep. Now, I like about sixteen hours sleepin' out o' the twenty-four, but when it comes to keep awake jest long enough to eat three meals a day I'm in favor of it."

"It must be a rich country, though," said Tom Ross. "No wonder them Spaniards want to keep it."

That day they passed at some distance three canoes containing Indians, but the canoes showed no wish to come near and investigate. Henry said that the Indians in them looked sprawling and dirty, unlike the alert, clean-limbed natives of the North.

"They probably belong," said Paul, "to the Natchez tribe who were beaten into submission long ago by the French, and who doubtless lack energy anyhow."

The Indian canoes went lazily on, and soon were lost to sight. Now a serious problem arose. They were approaching the settled parts of Louisiana. It is true, it was only the thinnest fringe of white people extending along either shore of the river a short distance above New Orleans, but they were coming to a region in which they would be noticed, and they might have to explain their presence before they wished to do so. Nor had they found any opportunity to capture Braxton Wyatt and his maps and plans. Nevertheless, they hung so closely on the trail of Alvarez that every night and morning they could see the smoke of his camp fire.

They stopped one evening in a cove of the river, sheltered by great mournful cypresses, and Henry and Shif'less Sol went out again to scrutinize the Spanish camp. They returned before midnight with unusual news. Alvarez with his whole force had turned from the Mississippi and had gone up a bayou about four miles. There he had landed some of his small cannon and stores at a rude wharf, and showed all the signs of making a stay, but whether short or long they could not tell.

"Alvarez must have a place, a plantation, I believe they call it, near here," said Paul intuitively, "and he's going to stop at it. As he wants to get Spain into a war with us he could plot a lot of mischief in a house of his own away from New Orleans."

"Of course, that's it," said Henry with conviction. "Now if we could only capture Braxton Wyatt and then carry off the fellow and his maps and plans with us, it would be a great stroke. It might make Alvarez quit his wicked plot."

Henry and Shif'less Sol slept briefly, and rising before daylight, went forth to investigate again. When they arrived at the edge of the bayou, they saw that the work of removal had been resumed already. All the boats had been tied up securely, and a mongrel lot of new men had joined the Spanish force, shiftless and half-civilized Houma and Natchez Indians, coal black negroes, some from the West Indies and some from Africa, Acadians, and fierce-looking adventurers from Europe. Most of them seemed to be laborers, however, and they worked with the arms and baggage taken from the boats. Among these laborers were several stalwart negro women with blazing red handkerchiefs tied around their heads.

Alvarez came off one of the boats, followed by Braxton Wyatt. The Spanish commander had attired himself with great care, and he was a really splendid figure in his glittering uniform and plumed hat. His gold-hilted small sword swung by his side. He bore himself as a lord proprietor, and in fact he was such at this moment. He was about to go, surrounded by his retainers, to his own house on a huge grant of land made to him by the Spanish King-Spanish kings granted lands very freely in America to favorites, and the relatives of favorites.

Braxton Wyatt also showed pride. Was he not the most trusted friend of an able man who was dreaming a great dream, a dream that would come true? The last remnants of his border attire had disappeared and he, too, was dressed wholly as a Spanish officer, though by no means so splendidly as his chief. Alvarez addressed a few words to a man in civilian attire, evidently his overseer, a dark, heavy West India Spaniard who carried a pistol in his sash, and then advanced through the rabble, which quickly fell back on either side to let him pass.

Horses were in waiting for Alvarez, Wyatt, and several others, and mounting, they rode off. Henry and Shif'less Sol watching from the bush as well as they could, and following. The way of the officers led through a great plantation but partially redeemed from the ancient forest. Cane and grain fields were on either side of the path, and presently they approached a large house of only one story, built of wood, and surrounded by a wide veranda supported with posts at regular intervals. This house was built around a court in the center of which was a clear pool. Henry and the shiftless one saw Alvarez and his company dismount and enter the house. They noticed others who approached on foot, but who did not enter, obviously men who did not dare to enter unless asked. Among them was a thin, middle-aged Natchez Indian, whose extraordinary, feline face had won for him the name of The Cat. Henry particularly observed this man, whose manner was in accordance with his appearance and name. Like those they had seen in the canoes he had a hangdog, shiftless look, different from the bold warrior of the more northerly forests.

The two did not remain long. So many people were about that they were likely to be seen, and they returned through the forest to the cypress cove in which "The Galleon" lay hidden. Here, it was agreed that they should go forth later in the day on another tour of inspection, re-inforced by Tom Ross, while Long Jim and Paul should remain to guard the boat and their precious stores.

When the three had gone, Long Jim sat on the edge of the boat and looked around at the sluggish waters of the bayou, the sad cypresses, and the drooping live oaks. An ugly water snake twined its slimy length just within the edge of the bayou, and the odor of the still forest about them was heavy and oppressive.

Long Jim took a long, comprehensive look, and then heaved a deep sigh.

"What's the matter?" asked Paul.

"I don't think the country and the climate agree with me," replied Long Jim lugubriously. "I wuz never so fur south afore, an' I'm a delicate plant, I am. I need the snow and the north wind to keep me fresh an' bloomin'. All this gits on me. My lungs don't feel clean. I'm longin' fur them big, fine woods up in our country, whar you may run agin a b'ar, but whar you ain't likely to step on a snake a fore you see it."

"Give me the temperate climate, too," said Paul, "but we've come on a great errand, Jim, and we've come a long way. It's good, too, to see new things."

"So it is, but I don't like to set here waitin' in this swamp. Think I'll stretch my legs a little on the bank thar, ef it's firm enough to hold me up, though I do have an abidin' distrust uv most uv the land hereabouts."

Jim leaped upon the bank which upheld him, and stretched his long legs with obvious relief.

"A boat's mighty easy," he said, "but now an' then walkin's good."

He strode up and down two or three times and then he stopped. He had heard a sound, faint, it is true, but enough to arrest the attention of Long Jim. Then he went on with a look of disgust. It was surely one of those snakes again!

He was about to pass a great cypress when a pair of long, brown arms reached out and grasped him by the throat. Long Jim was a strong man and, despite his early advantage, it would have gone hard with the owner of the arms, none other than The Cat himself, but three or four men, springing from the covert, threw themselves upon him.

Paul heard the first sounds of the contest and sprang up. He saw Long Jim struggling in the grasp of many hands, and snatching at the first weapon that lay near, he sprang to the bank, rushing to the assistance of his comrade.

A shout of derisive laughter greeted Paul. Long Jim had been thrown down and held fast and the lad was confronted by none other than Alvarez himself, while Braxton Wyatt, smiling in malignant triumph, stood just behind him.

"Well, my young man of Kaintock," said Francisco Alvarez in his precise English, "we have taken you and at least one of your brother thieves. In good time we'll have the others, too. It was an evil day when you ventured on my plantation so near such a wonderful tracker as The Cat. Why, he detected them instinctively when your comrades ventured near us!"

The eyes of the stooping Natchez Indian flashed at the compliment but, in a moment, he resumed his immobility. All the blood rushed to Paul's face, and he could not contain his anger.

"Thief! how dare you call me a thief!" he said.

"This is my boat before me," replied Alvarez. "You stole it."

"Not so," replied Paul. "We captured it. You seized and held me a prisoner when I came to your camp on a friendly mission, and we took it in fair reprisal and for a good purpose. Moreover, you are plotting with that vile renegade there to destroy our people in Kentucky!"

"You are a thief," repeated Francisco Alvarez calmly, "you stole my boat. Why, the very sword that you hold in your hand is mine, stolen from me."

Paul glanced down. In his haste and excitement he had snatched up one of the beautiful small swords when he leaped from the boat, but he had been unconscious of it. He was yet free and he held a sword in his hand. One of the men who was holding Jim Hart suddenly kicked him to make him keep quiet, and Paul's wrath blazed up under the double incentive of the blow and the sneering face of Francisco Alvarez.

The lad rushed forward, sword in hand, and one of the soldiers raised his musket. Alvarez pushed the weapon down.

"Since this young rebel wants to fight, and has a stolen sword of mine in his hand," he said, "he can fight with me. I will give him that honor."

So speaking Alvarez drew his own sword and held up the blade to the light until it glittered. A shout of approval arose from the soldiers, but Long Jim cried out:

"It ain't fair! It ain't right to take one uv your kind uv weepin's an' attack him! 'It's murder! Let me loose an' I'll fight you with rifles."

"Have you got that ruffian securely bound? " asked Alvarez.

"Yes," replied one of his men.

"Then I'll teach this youth a lesson, as I said."

Paul had stopped in his rush, and suddenly he became cool and collected.

"Don't you be afraid for me, Jim," he said. " I can take care of myself, and I'll fight him."

Alvarez laughed derisively and the others echoed the laugh of their master, but Paul held up his own sword, also, until it glittered in the light. Every nerve and muscle became taut, and the blood went back from his brain, leaving it cool and clear.

"Come on," he said to Alvarez. "I'm ready." They stood in a level glade, and the two faced each other, the sunshine lighting up all the area enclosed by the cypresses. Around them stood Braxton Wyatt and the followers of Alvarez.

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