Shif'less Sol led the way through the forest and four ghostly figures followed in single file. They made no noise as they passed among the cypresses and magnolias, and oaks of the drooping foliage. No one spoke, but the leader laughed more than once in his throat, a laugh which never passed the lips, but which was full of satisfaction nevertheless. He felt that he, Solomon Hyde, nicknamed the shiftless one, had not lived in vain. He had achieved the, greatest triumph of a life already crowded with dangers and deeds. To use the phrase of a later day, it was his crowded hour, and his four comrades gave him all the honor and glory of it.
They came presently to a still, dark channel of water, the bayou, and stopped on its bank. A light wind had risen, and as it blew among the cypresses and magnolias and oaks of the drooping foliage, it blew the song of the triumph of Shif'less Sol. The moonlight fell on his face now and as his features drew into a smile he, at last, permitted himself to laugh outright.
"It was wonderful, Sol," said Henry. "We always knew that you were near us, and we knew, too, that because you were near us we were near to freedom."
He stepped forward, grasped the hand of the shiftless one, and gave it a fervent shake. Paul at once did the same, then followed Long Jim and Tom Ross. Shif'less Sol's face became beatific. He had received his silent tribute and it was enough. The flavor of it would be with him all the rest of his life.
"What did you fellers think?" he asked, "when them two big knives came fallin' down on the floor. I'd hev called to you, but I wuz afeard I'd stir up them two sentinels on the other side of the house."
"We knew it was you, Sol," replied Paul, "and we knew then that our escape was certain. Where did you get the knives?"
"I stole them from a tool house," replied Sol with pride. "I guess they use 'em to cut cane with, or something like that."
"We certainly cut dirt with 'em at a great rate," said Henry, "and here we are free, the five of us together again, but without arms except the two knives you threw to us."
The moonlight was deepening and the shiftless one stood in the center of it. His figure seemed suddenly to swell and the calm, victorious light of the supreme conqueror came into his eyes.
"Boys," he said, and his voice was even and precise, as a victor's should be, "when I undertook this here job o' settin' us on our feet agin, I undertook to do it all. I not only meant to put us on our feet, but to git us ready fur runnin', too. Boys, I hev took 'The Gall-yun' from the Spaniards ag'in an' she's waitin' fur us."
"What! what!" they cried in chorus. "You don't mean it, Sol?"
"I shorely do mean it. All the boats that they expect to use to-day wuz anchored in the bi-yoo or bay-yoo or whatever they call it. 'The Gall-yun,' our gall-yun, wuz at the end o' the line nearest to the big river. Nobody wuz on board, but she wuz tied to the boat next to her. I slipped on her - it was pow'ful dark then an' the Spaniards wuz keepin' a slip-shod watch, anyhow - cut the rope an' floated her down the stream, where I've tied her up under sech thick brush that nobody 'cept ourselves is likely to find her. She'll be thar, waitin' fur us, an' don't you doubt it. An' fellers all our rifles and ammunition an' things are on her. It wuz the captain's boat, an' I s'pose he thought he might ez well hey them trophies, and use 'em."
"Is this really true, Sol?" exclaimed Paul, although he did not doubt.
"Gospel truth. We're jest ez well off ez we wuz a fore we wuz captured. I don't think, either, them Spaniards will miss 'The Gall-yun' until mornin'. So we kin be up an' away with somethin' o' a start."
"Lead on, Sol," said Henry.
Sol led, and resumed the noiseless Indian file. They found the good ship, "The Galleon," under the overhanging bushes where Sol had left her, rejoicingly they took possession again of the the boat, their arms, and supplies.
"Now for New Orleans and the Governor General," said Paul, as they pushed out into the bayou. There was no current here, but their powerful arms at the oars soon sent the boat into the Mississippi. There they set the sail which had been left unchanged, and as a good wind caught it they went on at a quickening pace. Wind, current, and oars combined made the low banks pass swiftly by.
It was now the darkest hour and all things were veiled. Each felt a great satisfaction. They had the courage, after such a great and skillful escape, to attempt anything.
"It's only lately that I've been gittin' friendly with the Missip," said Shif'less Sol. "It's a pow'ful big river an' a new one, but me an' this river are already jest like brothers. It ought all to belong to us people o' Kentucky. When we git to be a great big settled country, hev we got to float everything down it, right in among the Spaniards or the French, an' they able to stop us ef they want to? Pears to me thar oughtn't to be anything but a string o' free countries along the length o' this big river."
"I think that is what likely to happen," said Paul looking into the future, as he did so often. "We'll always be pressing down, and we can't help."
"Anyhow," resumed Shif'less Sol, "I'm glad that we've left that, thar place o' Booly, or Bee-yu-ly, or whatever they call it. Funny these furrin' people can't pronounce names like they spell. Now we Americans an the English, who use our language, call words jest ez they are, but you never know what a Frenchman or a Spaniard is goin' to make out o' em."
They made good progress throughout the day, and saw no sign of the flotilla of Alvarez which they had feared might overtake them. They were agreed that it would be wise for them to reach New Orleans first, and hence they went boldly forward into the country that they regarded as that of the enemy, confident of their fortune.
The river widened and narrowed frequently, but always it was very deep. It was not beautiful here, but the vast current flowing between low shores had a somber majesty all its own. Its effect upon the imagination of every one of them was heightened by the knowledge that the stream had come an immeasurable distance, from unknown regions, and that in the coming it had gathered into itself innumerable other rivers, most of which also had come from lands of mystery.
They stopped one mourning in the mouth of a creek that flowed into the Mississippi, and decided to spend the day in making repairs, a general cleaning-up, and a search for fresh food. It was the universal opinion that they would profit more by such a halt than by pushing on regardless of everything.
It was a beautiful spot in which they lay. They had gone about a hundred yards up the creek, and its waters here, about thirty six feet deep, were perfectly transparent. But this silver stream the moment it entered the Mississippi was lost in the great, brown current, swallowed up in an instant by the giant river.
The banks of the creek were low and on either side brilliant wild flowers grew to the very water's edge. Ferns, lilies, and other plants of deeper hues, were massed in great beds that ran from the creek edges back to the forest. Tall birds on immensely long and slender legs stood in the shallower water and now and then as quick as a flash of lightning darted down a hooked bill. Invariably the bill came up with a fish struggling in its grasp. Beautiful flamingoes hovered about the bank and many birds of brilliant plumage darted from tree to tree. Few of these sang, except the mocking bird, which gave forth an incessant mellow note. But it was a scene of uncommon peace and beauty and all felt its influence.
Henry looked at the creek and the forest through which it came with an appreciative eye. He knew because the waters of the creek were clear that it must flow through hard, firm ground, and he was thinking at that moment of a plan which he intended to carry out later.
Their first work was with the boat. In its long voyage on the river it had gathered mud and other objects on its bottom. This they could see perfectly now that it lay in the clear water, and Shif'less Sol and Jim Hart volunteered to scrape it with two of the shovels that were contained in the invaluable store house of "The Galleon."
Their offer was accepted, and taking off their clothing, they sprang into the water. Once a huge cat fish from the Mississippi, unused to man, brushed against Long Jim's leg, its horn raking him slightly. With a shout Long Jim sprang almost out of the water and clambered up the side of the boat.
"Somethin' big bit me!" he cried. "It took one uv my legs with him!"
"It's only a scared cat fish and you still have two legs, Jim," replied Henry laughing boyishly, because a boy he was in spite of his size and experience.
Jim looked down, and a great smile of delight unfolded like a fan across his face from side to side.
"Guess you're right, Henry," he said, "an' I am still all in one piece."
He sprang back into the water, and he and Sol soon finished their task. After that it was arranged that Sol, Jim, and Tom should give a thorough furbishing to the boat's interior, wash and dry their spare clothing and bedding, while Henry and Paul went on a hunt for a deer to replenish their larder.
"You see, Paul," said Henry, "the waters of this creek are quite clear, which means that it comes through good, hard ground. It's likely that it isn't far back to one of the little prairies which I've heard are common in this part of Louisiana, and in a wild country like this where there's a prairie there's pretty likely to be deer."
The logic seemed good to Paul. At any rate he was willing enough to go on a hunt, stretch his legs, and see a new region. Saying that they should probably be gone all day they started at once, leaving the others absorbed in the task of housecleaning. They reached solid ground not far from the creek's edge and walked along briskly, following the course of the stream back toward its source. The soil was black and deep and the forest magnificent. Great beeches and hickories were mingled with the willows and live oaks and cypresses, and the foliage was thick, green, and beautiful. The birds seemed innumerable, and now and then flocks of wild fowl rose with a whir from the creek's edge. Keen, penetrating odors of forest and wild flower came to their nostrils.
Both boys threw up their heads, inhaled the odors, and thrilled in every fiber. They were very young, care could never stay with them long and now they felt only the sheer, pure delight of living. They looked back. The forest had already shut out their boat, and one who did not know would not have dreamed that the longest river in the world was only a mile or two away. They were alone in the wilderness and they did not care. They were sufficient, for the moment, each to the other.
As they advanced, the creek narrowed and the forest thickened. The trees not only grew closer together, but there was a vast mass and network of trailing vines, extended from trunk to trunk and bough to bough. One huge oak in the very center of an intricate maze of vines was drawn far over and its boughs were twisted into strange, distorted shapes. It was obvious to both that the vines, singly so feeble, collectively so powerful, had done it, and they stood a moment or two wondering at this proof of the power of united and unceasing effort.
They went a mile or so further on, and Henry led the way toward the left and from the creek. An instinct or the lay of the land, perhaps, warned him that the open country was in that direction. The trees, had begun to thin already, and in another mile they came out upon a beautiful little rolling prairie. It was quite clear of trees; grass, mingled with wild flowers, grew high upon it, and at the far edge they saw the figures of animals grazing.
"Deer! " exclaimed Paul. "There they are, Henry! Just waiting for us!"
Henry took a long and keen look, then shook his head.
"No, not deer, Paul," he said. "Now guess what they are." "They can't be buffaloes," replied Paul. "I think, Henry, I'm right; they're deer."
"No," said Henry, "they're horses."
"Horses! Why there are no plantations hereabouts!"
"Not tame horses. Wild horses. Descendants of the horses that the Spaniards brought to Mexico two or three hundreds ago."
"And which have been spreading northward ever since," continued Paul, alive with interest. "Let's try to get a near look at them, Henry."
"I'm with you," said Henry.
Full of boyish curiosity they went around the prairie, keeping in the edge of the woods until they came much nearer to the herd of wild horses, which numbered about thirty. As a considerable wind was blowing their odor away from the animals, they could approach very closely without their presence being suspected.
The horses were clean limbed and well-shaped, and all except one were small and dark of color. But that one was a noticeable exception. He was almost pure white, far larger than the others, and he had a great flowing white mane and tail.
The herd grazed in a bunch, but the magnificent white stallion stood apart on the side next to the woods. He, too, grazed at intervals, but most of the time he stood, head erect like a sentinel or rather a leader. It seemed to both the boys that his whole attitude was full of spirit and majesty, the vast freedom of the wilderness. He carried, too, the responsibility for the whole herd and he knew it.
"A prairie King," whispered Paul. "Wouldn't I like to catch such a splendid animal, Henry, and ride him into New Orleans!"
"No you wouldn't, Paul," replied Henry. "That stallion wasn't made to be ridden by anybody."
"Look, Paul, look!"
Henry's last word rose to an excited whisper, and Paul's gaze quickly followed his pointing finger.
Even then he would not have seen anything had he not looked long and carefully. At last he made out a long, tawny shape on a low-lying bough of a tree at the very edge of the forest. The shape was flattened against the bough and almost blended with it.
"A panther!" whispered Paul.
Henry nodded. It was, in fact, a large specimen of the panther or southern cougar, and Henry whispered again:
"See what he is after!"
A small colt from the herd had wandered dangerously near to the forest and the bough on which the cougar lay, watching him with the yellow, famished eyes of the great, hungry cat.
"Shoot him, Henry! Shoot him!" whispered Paul. "You can reach him with a bullet from here. Don't let him kill the poor, little colt!"
"I'd do it if it were needed," replied Henry, "but I don't think it will be. See, Paul, the Prairie King suspects!
The great white stallion raised his head a little higher. It may be that he caught a glimpse of the tawny form and yellow, hungry eyes amid the foliage of the bough, or it may be that a sudden flaw in the wind brought to his nostrils the pungent odor of the big cat. He reared and stamped, the startled colt turned away, and the cougar, afraid that he was about to lose his chance, sprang.
A yellow compact mass, bristling with sharp, white teeth and long, hooked claws shot through the air, but the distance was too great. The colt had turned just in time, and the cougar fell short. He gathered himself instantly for another spring, but quick as he was, he was not quick enough.
The boys heard a fierce neigh, and the great stallion, wild with rage, hunched himself upon the cougar. Agile and powerful though the great cat was, the sharp hoofs trampled him down. Taken at a disadvantage, just at the moment when his first spring had spent itself, he was no match for the protector of the herd. No bone could resist the impact of those heavy terrible hoofs. No skull was thick enough to save. The cougar squealed, clawed, and bit wildly, but in an incredibly quick space he was trampled to death and lay quite still. The boys believed that every bone in him must have been broken.
The herd had run some distance away in fright at the cougar's leap, but while the swift combat lasted it stood looking on. Now the stallion, after a last look at the slain robber, turned and walked away in triumph to the herd that he had protected so well. It seemed to the glorified fancy of the boys that he held his head higher than ever, and that his great mane and tail flowed away in new ripples. He stalked proudly at the head of the herd down to the other side of the prairie, where they went placidly on with their grazing.
"That is certainly one thing that turned out right," said Paul in a gratified tone.
"The hoofs of a powerful and enraged wild stallion are a terrible thing," said Henry. "Even a deer, which is far smaller, can kill a man with its hoofs. But if you'll look again, Paul, you'll see that a new danger threatens our king of horses."
Paul followed Henry's gaze, and he distinctly saw two or three human figures at the edge of the wood. These figures were hidden from the horses by a swell of the prairies, and, as in the case of the cougar, the wind blew their odor away.
"Indians?" asked Paul.
"I can't tell at this distance," replied Henry, "but it's more likely that they belong to the party of Alvarez, and perhaps they know that wild horses frequent this prairie and others hereabouts. See what they are doing!"
Paul saw well enough. One man carrying on his arm a coil of rope, the lariat of Mexico, lay down in the long grass which completely hid him, but both Henry and Paul knew that he was creeping forward inch by inch toward the beautiful stallion that was grazing not ten yards from the woods.
"When he comes close enough, if he can do so before the horse takes the alarm," said Henry, "he will throw the rope and catch the horse by the neck in the running noose at the end."
"But the horse will take alarm," said Paul hopefully.
"I don't know," said Henry. "He may think in his horse mind that one enemy in one day is as much as he has need to dread."
It seemed that Henry was right. Exultant in his victory over the cougar, the Prairie King had relaxed his vigilance. More often now his head was down, cropping the grass like the rest of the herd. Henry and Paul believed that they could see the grass rippling as the new and more cunning enemy crept forward. But it was only agile fancy - they were too far away.
"What ever happens it's bound to happen soon," said Henry.
Even as he spoke the man in the grass sprang to his feet, threw forth his right arm, and the rope shot out like a snake uncoiling itself as it sprang. Both Paul and Henry felt a pang when they saw the loop enclose the neck of the noble horse, while the man himself and his comrades uttered loud shouts of exultation.
"He has caught him!" exclaimed Paul sadly.
"Yes," said Henry, "and I'm sorry, but it was a wonderful feat of skill and patience!"
The frightened herd ran away, and the white stallion reared and struggled, his great eyes red and distended with rage and astonishment. Two men ran forward and seized the rope which their comrade had thrown so skillfully. Then the three pulled hard.
But the quarry was too magnificent. They had miscalculated the white stallion's strength. Caught by the neck, he dragged, nevertheless, all three over the prairie, and then, suddenly making a mighty lunge, tore the rope from their grasp, leaving them thrown headlong to the earth. Away he went, the long rope flying out behind him like a streamer.
Doubtless some failure of the noose to draw tightly around his neck had saved the horse, and this was proved when the rope catching in a bush slipped off over his head as he struggled again. Then the stallion, by chance, or because his horse's mind inclined him to it, uttered a long, shrill neigh of triumph, kicked his heels high in the air, and galloped away, his flowing tail streaming out behind him, a banner of triumph.
"He's won again," said Henry in a tone of gladness. "I told you that horse wasn't made ever to be ridden."
"But he has to struggle continually for life and freedom," said Paul.
"Just the same as we do," rejoined Henry.
"See those fellows are picking themselves up; but they've been slow about it."
"I don't blame them. I fancy they suffered some pretty severe bruises when the horse jerked them down. Paul, I think I can make out two white faces in that party, which almost certainly means that they are the men of Alvarez. And it says to us that we ought to hurry."
"But not without our deer, I hope," said Paul.
They gave one last look at the far edge of the prairie, where they could still dimly see the white stallion, now keeping well away from the woods.
"I don't think anything will get him," said Henry, "and I hope not. Just as we do, he loves to be free."
They, too, re-entered the woods and were fortunate enough to find a deer quickly. Henry was willing to risk the chance of the shot being heard by their enemies and his bullet brought it down. Then they cut up the body and took it back to the boat, where they told all that had occurred. The others agreed that if Alvarez and his men were in the vicinity they ought to leave at once, and, transferring the drying clothes from the bank to the boat, they entered the Mississippi once more and set sail down its stream.