The Free Rangers

by Joseph A. Altsheler

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Chapter X. A Barbaric Ordeal

When Paul awoke the next morning just after daylight, he did not feel very good. Accustomed all his life to fresh air and infinite spaces, the close, hot little log house oppressed him. His head felt heavy and his lungs choked. Jim felt likewise and made audible complaint, but the door was soon opened, and again it was Luiz and a comrade with food.

"Luiz, you ain't no beauty an' you can't talk a real decent language," said Long Jim, "but I'm pow'ful glad to see you."

The words were foreign to Luiz, but he understood Long Jim's tone. He smiled and showed his white teeth, but when his glance fell upon Paul he became sad. Then he looked quickly away. He did not wish either Paul or his comrade to read anything in that glance. Luiz did not have a bad heart and he was troubled.

When they had eaten their breakfast, Luiz put his hand on Paul's shoulder, and pointed to the door, beckoning also to Long Jim. His manner indicated plainly that they were to leave the prison.

"All right, pardner," said Long Jim. "You won't have to git no pole to pry me out uv this place."

Luiz led the way and the two followed gladly. The air was crisper and fresher than usual, and to both of them it felt divine. They inhaled deep breaths, and thought that the world had never looked so beautiful. What a golden sunrise! What a blue sky! What magnificent green woods off there under the horizon! They felt strength and courage rushing back in a flood.

"Which way now, Mr. Spaniard?" said Long Jim. "Has your captain repented, an' does he want to give us the finest rooms in his house? I can't say that we liked the tavern he made us stop at last night."

Luiz shook his head, either to signify that he did not understand or that there was no reply, and led the way down a narrow path shut in on either side with magnolias and cypresses. The little group of soldiers enclosed Paul and Long Jim, but all their glances were for the boy, none for the man.

The enclosed path led on for two or three hundred yards. Paul now and then caught glimpses through the trees of the chateau or a passing face, and he heard a low murmur that seemed to be the hum of many voices.

The path ended presently at a gate in a high board wall, and both gate and wall were thick and strong. Here a Spaniard dressed like a minor officer was waiting, and began to unlock the gate.

"Now what under the sun can they be about?" asked Long Jim, to whom all this seemed very strange. "Are they goin' to tie us up in a pen?"

The heavy gate was unlocked and swung open a foot or so. Two soldiers suddenly seized Long Jim and pulled him back, while another thrust Paul into the open space. The officer put in his hand a sword - the very one with which he had wounded Alvarez, Paul's fingers closing mechanically over the hilt. Then they shoved Paul inside, and quickly closed and locked the gate behind him. But the last look that Luiz had bent upon the boy was one of pity and sympathy.

Paul staggered with the force of the push that the men had given him, and for a moment or two he was dazed, but eye and brain alike cleared as a great shout arose. Then he beheld an extraordinary scene.

The boy stood within a ring fence enclosing a circular space perhaps thirty yards across, free from grass, and trodden hard. The fence was of boards only about half way around, the rest of it being made of strong parallel bars about two feet apart and fastened to posts. At the far side a rude log stable seemed to open into it. The place might have been intended as a breaking ground for horses but Paul did not have time to think.

Facing him, just outside the fence and sitting on a hastily constructed wooden seat was Francisco Alvarez, still in his finest uniform. Beside him was Braxton Wyatt, also in a Spanish uniform, and all about them on either side, wherever the fence was made of parallel bars and open to see, clustered the mob, soldiers, laborers, servants, white faces, black faces, yellow faces, brown faces, straight hair, curly hair, and kinky hair, French, Spaniards, Portuguese, Indians, negroes, and many mixtures, every one eager and tense, and every eye bent upon Paul who stood, back to the gate, holding the sword in his hand, but unconscious that he held it.

What was this mummery? Why was he a spectacle for that mob? All the blood rushed to Paul's head and the little pulses in his temples began to beat like hammers. He looked at Alvarez, but the Spaniard had turned his face into a stony mask, and he could read no meaning there. Then he looked at Braxton Wyatt, and the renegade's countenance plainly expressed malignity and triumph. The great shout that greeted the entrance of Paul died away to a silence so heavy that it seemed ominous. Then Francisco Alvarez looked toward the wooden building, at the far side of the ring, and raised his hand. A gate there was thrown open, and a man, sword in hand, strolled lazily out. Again a tremendous shout arose, and the mob pressed closer to the bars, those in front sitting on the grass and those behind standing up in order that they might look over them.

Francisco Alvarez raised his hand a second time, and instantly there was silence once more. He was like a feudal lord dispensing justice in the open air before all his retainers.

"Kaintock," he called in a loud voice, "since you are so expert with the sword, we give you another chance to display your skill. Defend yourself from this champion."

Again the approving shout of the mob arose, and Paul looked across the ring, where the swordsman had come forth.

The man was of great size, and his whole appearance reminded Paul of the ancient gladiators of whom he had read. He seemed to be a West Indian of Spanish descent, very dark and with immense shoulders. He wore a red shirt, which added to his strange and savage appearance. He carried in his hand a long sword, much longer than Paul's and when he faced the lad he suddenly grasped the hilt of his weapon in both hands and twirled it about until it made a glittering circle. The crowd set up a shout, but Paul felt chilled through and through.

"I have no quarrel with this man," he called to Alvarez, "and I will not fight him."

"You have no choice," replied Alvarez, and the more savage in the crowd, who wished to see barbaric sport, shouted their approval. But some were silent. Long Jim struggled with four men, and exclaimed, "It's murder! He's only a boy!" But the four held him fast.

The swordsman, grinning in the certainty of easy triumph, advanced upon Paul.

Now Paul understood. He was there to furnish sport, terrible, deadly sport, and he must fight if he would save himself. As Alvarez truly said, no choice was left to him. If he sprang for the barrier they would thrust him back, and that was not a thing to be endured.

Francisco Alvarez, spurred on by the sting of his wound, and urged, too, by Braxton Wyatt, who was mad for the deed the moment he heard of it, had done this wicked thing. The strain of cruelty in his nature, inherited perhaps, from far-off ancestors who had looked upon pitiless games in the arena in the Roman cities in Spain, was completely in control.

"It is better than I thought," he said to Braxton Wyatt. "The ring serves the purpose well. We shall have some royal sport if Kaintock will but fight."

"He will fight," said Braxton Wyatt.

The swordsman advanced upon Paul and thrust with his shining blade. Paul felt intuitively that he was a master of the weapon, reinforced, too, by enormous strength. He, a boy, would have but little chance. Yet he parried the thrust and replied with one of his own that flashed dangerously near the man's side. The crowd again shouted approval, but as before some were silent Long Jim made another effort to drag himself loose, but he could not. The men held him. Nevertheless, he repeated his cry: "It's murder! He's only a boy!"

The rapid interchange of thrust and parry followed, and the swordsman grew angry. He was there not only to furnish sport, but to have it also for himself. He did not like to be held back by one over whom he had thought victory so easy. Suddenly he exerted his full strength and broke through Paul's guard. The lad felt his left shoulder and arm seared as if by a great flame, and, with a cry that he could not repress, he dropped back.

The swordsman, too, stepped back, sure now of his triumph. The shout came from the crowd once more, but only from a part of it, and brave, faithful Long Jim closed his eyes that he might not see what would follow.

The elated swordsman held up his weapon as one would a banner. It was a broad blade like a cutlass and it glittered in the brilliant sunlight. The next moment there was the sound of a shot, the man uttered a cry of pain, although himself untouched, and the sword, broken in several pieces, fell to the ground. It had been shot from his hand with a rifle bullet.

Long Jim, opening his eyes, uttered a cry of joy and Henry Ware, smoking rifle in hand, pressed his way through the crowd, which he had entered unnoticed in the excitement.

Francisco Alvarez sprang to his feet in anger. Not for, some moments did he see the figure of the one who fired the shot, and even then he did not know who it was. But Braxton Wyatt knew Henry Ware at once, and he was resolved that he should not escape.

"Seize him! seize him!" cried the renegade. "He is the most dangerous of them all!

But Henry offered no resistance, as the soldiers rushed toward him, quietly surrendering his rifle. Tom Ross, who was behind him, angrily threw back the crowd and would have fought, but Henry said:

"Give up, Tom, it's best for the present."

Henry's eyes were upon his comrade who had been subjected to such treatment. Paul stood erect, but there were stains on his shoulder, and he was pale and weak.

"Look to him," said Henry threateningly to Francisco Alvarez who was approaching. "It is an outrage of which the Governor General of Louisiana shall know."

Alvarez flushed. He felt now slight prickings of the conscience and of apprehension. It was indeed a wicked deed that he had done, but he had no mind to be bearded by another from Kaintock.

"He will receive the proper attention," he said, "but you are my prisoner, and so is this man who has just been taken with you. I tell you, too, that I am in supreme command here, and I take the responsibility for all my acts."

Braxton Wyatt had crowded near, but Henry and Tom refused to notice him. Luiz went into the ring and led Paul away, binding up his shoulder where the flesh was cut, although the hurt was not serious.

"Take their arms and put them all in the same prison," said Alvarez to one of his officers and the four were escorted to the log house which Paul and Long Jim had left not long before.

"Our plan has been marked by some success after all," said Alvarez to Braxton Wyatt. "It has drawn two more into our hands."

"There is a fifth," said Braxton Wyatt. "The one they call Shif'less Sol, and we have not got him. As long as a single one of them is free we are in danger."

The Spaniard laughed.

"You exaggerate their powers," he said. "We have nothing to fear from one wandering hunter."

"But this man, Shif'less Sol, is full of cunning," said Braxton Wyatt.

The Spaniard's only reply was to hold his head a little higher. It was his plan now to assume his haughtiest manner. The little fear that he had done wrong, that his act in forcing Paul into the ring against a professional swordsman, a gladiator as it were, was medieval, and that harm might come to him from it, clung to him. But pride bade him never to show it.

As he and Braxton Wyatt went into the Chateau of Beaulieu, the doors of the log prison closed upon the four comrades. Paul, under the care of Luiz, reached it first but the others were just behind. Paul sat on the floor and leaned against the wall. The others bent tenderly over him. But Paul looked up at them and smiled.

"It isn't much," he said. "The sword only grazed me. My clothing saved me from a bad cut. But I wish you boys, whatever happens, would remember that Spaniard, Luiz. He's been kind to me."

"We'll do it," said Henry. "I don't know what will come of all this, Paul, but I feel sure that we'll succeed."

"Of course," said Paul, "but you came just in time, and that was a great shot of yours."

"We were in the woods," said Henry, "and we saw the crowd gathering. We knew some mischief was afoot, and they were so eager on it that we came up unnoticed. I wanted Tom to stay back, but he was afraid he would be needed."

"And Shif'less Sol?" said Paul. "Where is he?"

Henry laughed.

"The shiftless one is about the shiftiest man in the wilderness," he replied. "Do you suppose that he would ever walk into a trap, when there was nothing inside the trap worth the risk? Didn't he know that Tom and I were sufficient for any task that might be ahead of us this morning?"

Paul laughed, too, and the others were glad to see the color coming back into his face.

"Good old Sol," he said, "I'm glad he didn't come too. He's somewhere out there in the woods, and he's the one link between us and Kentucky. "We'll be sure to hear from him."

They talked of their plans, but for the time, they could see no way. Shif'less Sol might go on alone to New Orleans, but it needed the presence of the five to be convincing.

"He wouldn't go anyhow," said Paul. "Sol would never leave us here."

Luiz brought them food and water at noon, and then they were left again to themselves.

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