The Free Rangers

by Joseph A. Altsheler

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Chapter XVIII. Northward With the Fleet

When Alvarez was gone, the five rose and thanked the Governor General. They, too, did not wish to rejoice over a fallen foe, but it was the moment of their complete triumph. Success had come better than they had ever hoped and the great three-faced conspiracy was shattered. It was Spanish cannon that they had dreaded and now they could not thunder against the wooden walls in Kentucky. They crowded around the priest, too, and shook his hand and were grateful for his timely assistance. He had come at the most opportune of all moments.

It was Paul who acted as spokesman for them with Bernardo Galvez.

"Your Excellency, we came this vast distance confiding in your justice, and we have found our confidence well placed," he said.

Bernardo Galvez smiled. It was a moment of triumph for him, too. A bold conspiracy against him had been crushed, and the five had been the chief instruments in the crushing of it. Even without the aid of his good heart, his feelings toward them would have been very kindly.

"If New Orleans has proved inhospitable to you for a time," he said, "she is now ready to make atonement. Your good friend, Mr. Pollock, will care for you."

The five withdrew with the merchant, still elated, still feeling the full sense of victory. Mr. Pollock had been very quiet but when they reached the open air he burst forth.

"Lads," he said, "'tis a great task that you have done. You have saved Kentucky - and these things are far-reaching - you may have saved all the colonies beside. If the Mississippi had been closed to us we could not reach our friends in the east with the supplies that they need so badly. But I can't say more. You were surely inspired when you set out upon this errand, and there is a tremendous debt of gratitude coming to you.

He shook hands with them all, one by one. But Long Jim heaved a mighty sigh of relief.

"Is it all over, Paul?" he asked.

"I think so, Jim. We seem to have destroyed for good and all the great three-cornered conspiracy against us."

"Then," said Jim, "ef it's all done I want to talk sense. I'm in favor uv our startin' to Kentucky right away, that is, in about five minutes. Them big woods keep callin' to me. I heard 'em callin' last night in my dreams, an' I hear 'em callin' now when I'm awake. I've breathed indoor air long enough. It's layin' heavy on my lungs, an' I want to put in its place air that's swep' clean across from the Pacific Ocean an' that ain't hit nothin' foul on the way."

"Five minutes is too short notice, Jim," laughed Paul, "but we'll surely start soon, though it's a tremendously long tramp through the woods and even if we had 'The Galleon' we'd have to pull and sail against the current."

Oliver Pollock was watching them as they talked and his eyes gleamed, but he said nothing until they were within his house, where he took them and gave them refreshments. There he had a proposition to make.

"The boat, of course, you have lost," he said, as it belongs to Spain, but your arms and other equipment are all in my possession - they were given to me to keep for you. But our fleet of canoes loaded with arms and supplies will start north in three days. Will you go on it? Not to work, not to paddle, unless you wish, but to guide and to fight. It is no favor that I am conferring upon you, but one that you can confer upon me if you will. We need such as you and with you I shall feel that the fleet is safer."

It was a most welcome offer. They could serve cause and themselves at the same time. All things seemed to fall out as they wished.

"Sir, we thank you," said Henry speaking for them all. "You do not have to make such an offer twice."

"Good! Good!" said Oliver Pollock. "Then the main feature of the bargain is closed and now I must have you to know the captain of the fleet. Oh, I think that you will agree with him famously. He will be in charge of the navigation and the fleet, though not of you. You are to remain in your role of free rangers."

He clapped his hand upon a little bell on the table and one of the stalwart, sunbrowned clerks entered.

"Bring in Captain Colfax. I want him to make some new friends," said Oliver Pollock, who was in the greatest of good humors.

Captain Adam Colfax of New Hampshire, who found the climate of New Orleans very warm, came in in a minute or two, and his was a figure to attract the attention of anybody. Middle aged, nearly as tall as Jim Hart, red haired, with a sharp little tuft of red whisker on his chin, and with features that seemed to be carved out of some kind of metal, he was a combination of the seaman and landsman, as tough and wiry as they ever grow to be. He regarded Oliver Pollock out of twinkling little blue eyes that could be merry or severe, as they pleased.

"Captain Colfax," said Oliver Pollock, "These are the five from Kentucky of whom you heard. They are to go with you on your great journey as far as Kentucky, but they are to do as they please. They are scouts, warriors, and free rangers. You will find them of great service."

He introduced them one by one, and Adam Colfax gave them a hearty grip with a hand which seemed to be made of woven steel wire.

"Good woodsmen and good riflemen I take it," he said, "and we may need both. I hear that the Creeks, Cherokees, and others, are feeling full of fight. Now, I ain't looking for a fight, but if it happens to get in my way I'm not running from it."

"You old war horse," said Oliver Pollock, laughing, "it's your business to get these supplies through, not to be shooting at Indians. I wish I could go with you. It's a wonderful journey, but I have to stay here in New Orleans. This is the gate and we must see that it is not closed. How many canoes and boats have we now, Adam?"

"About sixty, and they are manned by at least three hundred men. As I see it, we can take care of ourselves."

"Adam," said Mr. Pollock laughing, "I believe you're really looking for a fight."

Adam Colfax showed two rows of fine, white teeth, but said nothing. After a little more hearty talk he went away to look after his fleet, and Mr. Pollock made arrangements for the five to stay at his house until their departure north. They were to occupy a single big room, and their rifles, other arms, and general equipment were already there waiting for them.

"I'll miss 'The Galleon,'" said Paul, "I'd like to be going back in her. I suppose it's sentiment, but I became attached to that boat."

"She wuz shorely comf'table," said Shif'less Sol. "I had a good time floatin' down her on the Missip'. Now I reckon Jim here will hey to row me or paddle me all the way back to Kaintuck."

"Ef you wait fur me to row or paddle you, you won't ever travel more'n six inches," said Long Jim.

"Jest like you, Jim; you ain't got no gratitood at all fur me gittin' you away from New Orleeyuns."

Paul, who had been speaking to Henry in a low tone, now turned again to Mr. Pollock.

"There is one more thing that we want you to do for us, if you will, Mr. Pollock," he said. "We took the boat from Alvarez because he attacked us first, and we put it to what we think was a good use. But it really belonged to Spain and Bernardo Galvez. So if any wages are coming to us we wish that you would take enough in advance and pay the Governor General for the use of the boat and what stores we may have consumed."

"It shall be done," said Oliver Pollock, "and I like your spirit in wishing it to be done."

It was a promise that he kept faithfully.

When they reached their room they found their rifles and other arms in perfect order. Lieutenant Diego Bernal had taken good care of them. Long Jim picked up his rifle and handled it lovingly.

"It feels good jest to tech it," he said. "I didn't think I could ever like a Spaniard ez well ez I do that thar little leftenant. I'll miss him when we go ploughin' up the river. They were preparing to leave the room and breathe air out of doors, as Sol put it, when they were stopped by the entrance of Father Montigny. They crowded around him, expressing anew the gratitude that they had shown to him at the house of the Governor General.

"It was really you, Father Montigny, who saved everything," said Paul.

The priest smiled and shook his head.

"No," he said, "it was not I, but your courage and tenacity. I had the rare good fortune to find the letter among the Chickasaws and obtain it. It was sent by the Shawnees and Miamis as a sort of token, a war belt as it were. It was only a remote chance that brought it back to New Orleans, and even then Alvarez confidently expected to be Governor General."

"What will become of Alvarez?" asked Paul.

"It is the plan to send him a prisoner to Spain on the galleon, Dona Isabel, as you know, but I fear that we have not heard the last of him. He is a man of fierce temper, and now he is wild with rage and mortification. Moreover, he has many followers here in New Orleans. All the desperadoes, adventurers, former galley slaves, and others of that type would have been ready to rally around him. But I have come to tell you good-bye. I go again in my canoe up the Mississippi."

"Can't you stay a while in New Orleans and rest?" asked Paul - the sympathy between Paul and the priest was strong, each having a certain spiritual quality that was in agreement.

"No," replied Father Montigny, "I cannot stay. You came on your task in spite of hardships and dangers because you felt that a power urged you to it. Farewell. We may meet again or we may not, as Heaven wills."

They followed him to the door and when he was almost out of sight he turned and waved his hand to them.

The next day New Orleans, which was already deeply stirred by news of the plot of Alvarez and its discovery, had another thrill. It was Lieutenant Diego Bernal who told the five of it at the counting house of Oliver Pollock.

"Francisco Alvarez has escaped," he said. "The watch at the prison was none too strict; it may be that some of the guards themselves were friends of his. In any event, he is gone from the city, and his going has been followed by the departure of many men whom New Orleans could well spare. But whether their going now will be to our benefit I cannot tell."

"Do you mean to say," asked Henry, "that all these men have gone away to join Alvarez in some desperate adventure?"

"I have an impression, although my impressions are usually false," replied the Lieutenant, "that such is the case. The Chickasaws, the Creeks, and other tribes of these regions are his friends because he has promised them much. A capable officer with a hundred desperate white men at his back and a horde of Indians might create stirring event."

The five became very thoughtful over what he said, but when Lieutenant Diego Bernal was taking his leave he looked at them rather enviously.

"You five inspire me with a certain jealousy," he said. "I have an impression, although my impressions are usually wrong and my memory always weak, that you are strongly attached to one another, that no one ever hesitates to risk death for the others, that you are bound together by a hundred ties, and that you act together for the common good. Ah, that is something like friendship, real friendship. I should like to be one of a band like yours, but I look in vain for such a thing in New Orleans."

"I wish that you were going with us," said Henry heartily.

"I wish it, too. Often I long for the great forests and the free air as you do, but my service is due here to Bernardo Galvez, who is my good friend. But it is pleasant to see that you have triumphed so finely."

"We may encounter great dangers yet," said Henry.

"It is quite likely, but I have an impression, and upon this occasion at least I am sure my impression is not wrong, that you will overcome them as you have done before."

When he was gone, and every one of the five felt genuine regret at his departure, they went down to the river, where their fleet was anchored, and were welcomed by Adam Colfax.

"We're certainly going to-morrow," said the captain, "but nobody can tell when we'll get to Fort Pitt."

It was indeed a fine fleet of canoes and boats to be propelled by paddle, oar, and sail, and it bore a most precious cargo. Eight of the larger boats carried a twelve pound brass cannon apiece to be used if need be on the way, but destined for that far-distant and struggling army in the northeast. Stored in the other boats and canoes were five hundred muskets, mostly from France, barrels of powder, scores of bars of lead, precious medicines worth their weight in gold, blankets, cloth for uniforms and underclothing. It was the most valuable cargo ever started up the Mississippi and there were many strong and brave men to guard it.

"We carry things both to kill and to cure," said Paul.

"An' we're goin', too!" said Long Jim, heaving again that mighty sigh of relief. "That's the big thing!"

They started the next day at the appointed time. Henry, Paul, and Long Jim were in one of the leading boats, and Tom Ross and Shif'less Sol were in another near them. The population of New Orleans was on the levee to see them go, and some wished them good luck and many wished them bad. The majority of the French were for them, and the majority of the Spanish against them. But the five, now that the time was at hand, felt only elation. The breeze blew strong and fresh over the mighty river that came from their beloved forests and vast unknown regions beyond. They seemed to feel in it some of the tang and sparkle of the north.

"Good-bye, New Orleans," said Jim Hart, waving a long hand on a long arm; "I'm glad I've seed you, I'm glad I've laid my weary head to rest inside your walls fur a few nights, but I'm glad I don't stay in you, nor in any other town. Goodbye."

One of the brass cannon fired a salute, cannon on the fort and the galleon, Dona Isabel, replied. Adam Colfax gave the word, and at the same instant hundreds of oars and paddles dipped into the muddy current of the Mississippi. The great supply fleet leaped forward as if it were one whole, and soon New Orleans and its intrigues sank under the curve behind them.

Henry and Paul, although they did not have to work, pulled at the oars with the others, and more than one man noticed how the mighty muscles of Henry Ware's arm swelled and bunched as he made the boat leap forward. But they did not maintain their high rate of speed long. As the rivers ran it was a good two thousand miles to Fort Pitt, and they did not wish to exhaust themselves on the first twenty. Long Jim at last let his oar rest and patted Paul joyfully on the shoulder.

"Ain't you noticed nothin', Paul?" he asked.

"I've noticed a lot of river, and a fine little fleet on it."

"But somethin' better than that. Look at the trees, Paul, all along on either side, an' not a house in sight, an' not a human bein' 'cept ourselves, not a single trail uv smoke to dirty the sky. Nothin' but the woods ez God made 'em. I tell you, Paul, its pow'ful fine jest to live!"

Paul shared his enthusiasm, but his feelings went further. Beyond a doubt they had been successful in their great journey to the south, but another and large purpose was yet left. Their task had brought them into contact with the world outside, and Paul devoutly hoped that the supply train would reach Fort Pitt in time.

The day went smoothly on. The fleet kept its formation something like that of an arrow, with Adam Colfax's boat the point of the arrow, and those containing the five just behind. The river assumed a wholly wilderness aspect. Spanish or French boats were few and they gave the fleet a wide berth. Wild fowl swarmed once more, and they saw a bear on the bank regarding them with a half wise, half comic countenance.

When the sun was low the boats containing the five were turned toward the land. There they found a cove in which the boats could be safely tied and a fine grove in which they could cook, and which would also furnish a good place for those who wished to sleep ashore. Henry Ware and Shif'less Sol scouted in the country about but saw no sign of anything that might disturb.

All five slept on land wrapped in their blankets under the trees, and early the next morning the journey was resumed. Progress could not be rapid. They had to face the slow, heavy current of the Mississippi, and now and then Henry and Shif'less Sol and Tom Ross walked through the woods along the shore. They early established their reputations as the best hunters and shots in the fleet, and they kept the men supplied with game, bear, deer, and water fowl.

Several days passed in this manner, and Henry noticed that people were even scarcer than they had been when they were coming down. Then they had seen a few, now not more than two or three, and these avoided them.

"I don't believe they are really friendly to us," said Henry to Paul, "and something to injure us may be on foot. I wish that we were beyond the last French and Spanish settlement."

"We are too strong to be attacked," said Paul, "I don't think we have anything to fear."

Henry shook his head somewhat doubtfully, but he said nothing more on the subject at that time, and the fleet moved steadily on without event. Adam Colfax exercised a stern discipline. There were wild men in his fleet, adventurers, fellows who had floated about the world, but he was a match for any of them, and those who did not respect his voice feared his ready hand. But even these were animated by the great purpose and the thrill of a two-thousand mile journey on unknown rivers through a vast wilderness.

Half of the men slept ashore every night. They would build great fires, cook their suppers, and then sit around awhile talking. Some one would sing, and others would play strange, old tunes on accordion or guitar. Paul heard many a snatch of song in Spanish or French or Portuguese, and the wilderness would lend an additional charm to the melody. Adam Colfax, stern ruler that he was, never forbade these amusements.

"It isn't well to stop up things too tight," he would say. "Children have got to make noise, and men are a good deal the same way. If you seal 'em up they'll bust."

These evening scenes always made a deep impression upon Paul. There were the cheerful fires, lighted for cooking, and now dying down to great beds of coals, the surrounding darkness seeming to come closer and closer, but within it a wide circle of light in which many men sat or reclined at ease, smoking or talking, or doing both. All were good-natured, the weather was fair so far, the journey easy, the work not excessively hard, and the hunters brought in fresh game in plenty.

They passed the mouth of the bayou near which the Chateau of Beaulieu stood, and Henry and Shif'less Sol went to see it. They found a small detachment of Spanish soldiers sent by Bernardo Galvez in possession, but the followers of Alvarez had disappeared. The place seemed lonely and deserted, as the soldiers of Galvez kept close to the house, as if they were afraid of the wilderness.

Henry and Shif'less Sol sped back through the forest toward the river.

"Now I wonder," said Shif'less Sol, "what could hev become o' that Spanish feller. He wuz jest the kind, so proud he wuz, an' thinkin' so much o' his-self, to be burnin' up with hate over what has happened."

"He has made himself an outlaw," said Henry, "and it's my opinion, Sol, that he's somewhere in these regions. And Braxton Wyatt is with him, too. That fellow will never rest in his plots against us. We'll hear from them both again. They'll try for some sort of revenge."

They rejoined the boats at noon, and three or four hours later they saw a canoe ahead of them upon the water. It contained two occupants who graded their speed to that of the fleet, keeping well out of rifle-shot.

"What do you take them to be?" called out Adam Colfax to Henry.

"Indians, I know, and spies, I think," replied Henry.

Several of the more powerful boats moved ahead of the fleet and endeavored to overtake the canoe, but they could not. The two Indians who occupied it evidently had skill and powerful arms, as they maintained the distance between themselves and their pursuers. Henry and Paul, stirred by the interest of the chase, also seized oars and pulled hard, but the canoe presently turned up a small tributary river, where they did not have time to follow it, and they saw it no more.

It was something that many might have passed as a mere incident of the river, but Henry did not forget it. His sixth sense, the sense of danger, as it were, had received a definite impression, and he paid heed to the warning.

That afternoon clouds came up for the first time. It had been very warm on the river, but the heat and closeness did not develop into a rapid storm of thunder and lightning as so often happens in the Mississippi valley. Instead, the air turned colder, and a raw, drizzling rain set it. It was then that they appreciated the comfort of their well-equipped boats. Everybody was wrapped up and protected, and they moved steadily on'.

Henry and Shif'less Sol, as usual, went ashore later on to seek a landing place, and a site suitable for a camp, as it was considered wise always to give the men warm food. Presently they found a fairly well sheltered spot near the shore, a slope surrounded by high trees, and when Adam Colfax received the word the boats were tied to the bank. Some tents were pitched in the opening, and with considerable difficulty the fires were lighted. A drizzling rain still fell, but the fires finally triumphed over it, and blazed and crackled merrily. Nevertheless, this lightness and merriment were not communicated to the men, who shivered in the wet, drew close to the flames, and had downcast faces. All the five were ashore and in the shadow of the woods they held a little conference of their own, talking with great earnestness.

"I think," said Henry, "that we're being watched and that there is danger, great danger. One never knows what the wilderness contains.

"Suppose that all of us watch the night through," said Paul.

"No," said Henry, "I think, Paul, that you ought to sleep and Long Jim should do so, too. There are enough without you. To-morrow night will be your turn. We shouldn't waste our resources."

This satisfied Paul and Jim, and soon they were asleep in one of the tents, but Henry, Shif'less Sol, and Tom Ross were in the dripping forest outside Adam Colfax's own line of sentinels, seeking the hidden danger. The three remained together, and they looked everywhere. They were on the east bank and there was nothing but forest. The moon lay behind sodden clouds, and the trees were dark and shadowy. Now and then the wind swept a dash of rain in their faces, and the air remained raw and chill. Sharp as were their eyes, they could not see very far into the forest, but they could see behind them the flame of their own camp fires, a core of light in the wilderness.

"It might be better to put out all those fires," said Henry, "but I don't believe Captain Colfax would hear to it. He thinks we're too strong to fear any serious attack."

"No," said Shif'less Sol, "he wouldn't do it, an' the men would grumble, too. We've got to be the outside guard ourselves."

The three kept together, continuing their steady patrol in a semi-circle about the camp, the side of the river being guarded by the boats themselves. The rain died to a drizzle, but the clouds remained, and the skies were dark. Hours passed, and nearly everybody slept soundly by the fires, but the faithful three, gilding among the wet trees and bushes, still watched. They 'heard faint noises in the forest, the passage of the wind, or the stir of a wild animal, and after a while they heard the long, plaintive and weird note, with which they were so familiar, the howl of the wolf.

It was characteristic of the three that when this faint note, almost like the sigh of the wind among the wet trees, reached their ears, they said nothing, but merely stopped and in the obscurity glanced at one another with eyes of understanding. They listened patiently, and the low, plaintive howl came again and then once more, all from different points of the compass. There had been a time when Henry Ware was deceived for a moment by these cries, but it was not possible now.

"It must be a gathering of the southern tribes," he said, "and I imagine that Braxton Wyatt is with them, giving them advice. Sol, suppose that you go to the right and Tom to the left. I'll stay in the center, and if any one of us sees an enemy he's to shoot at it and rouse the camp."

The two were gone in an instant, and Henry was left alone. That instant all the old, primeval instincts, so powerful in him, were aroused. His sixth sense, the sense of danger, was speaking to him in a voice that he could not but hear. There, too, was the quaver of the wolf. All the signals of alarm were set, and he resolved that he should be the first to see danger when it showed its head.

The clouds piled in heavier masses in the sky, and the darkness thickened. The wind blew lightly and its sound among the boughs and leaves was a long, plaintive sigh that had in it a tone like the cry of a woman. The rain came only in gusts, but when it struck it was sharp and cold. The trees stood out, black and ill-defined, like skeletons. But the forest, its wet, its chill, and its loneliness, had no effect upon the attuned mind of Henry Ware. He was in his native element, and every nerve in him thrilled with the knowledge that he would rise to meet the crisis, whatever it might be.

He was crouched by the side of a great oak, his form blurring with its trunk, his eyes, now used to the darkness, searching every covert in front - he knew that Shif'less Sol and Tom Ross would watch to right and left.

The cry of the wolf did not come again, save for a lone note, now much nearer. But when its sound passed through the forest, Henry Ware's form seemed to become a little more taut and he leaned a little further forward. Beyond the slight bending motion he did not stir.

He still saw nothing and heard nothing, but that voice which was his sixth sense was calling to him more loudly than ever, and he was ready to respond.

In front of him, thirty yards away, lay a thicket of undergrowth, and he watched it incessantly. It seemed to him now that he knew every bush and briar and vine. Presently a briar moved, and then a bush, and then a vine, but they moved against the wind, and the sharp eyes of the watcher saw it. He sank a little lower and the muzzle of his rifle stole forward. He made not the slightest sound, and good eyes, only a few yards away, could not have separated his dark figure from that of the tree trunk.

The same briar and bush moved a third time, and, as before, against the wind. It did not escape the note of Henry Ware. Now he saw a sharp, red nose appear, and then the shaggy head behind it.

The nose remained - projected and lifted in the air, a-sniff to catch the fleeting scent of an enemy. Fancy could readily paint the ugly head of the lank body behind it. But Henry Ware was not deceived for an instant. The muzzle of the rifle that had been thrust forward, was raised now, and taking swift aim, he fired.

A wild and terrible cry swelled through the forest. An Indian warrior sprang to his feet, casting off his guise of a wolfskin, stood perfectly still for a moment, and then fell headlong among the wet bushes. The cry came back in many real echoes, the shouts of the warriors who knew now that there was to be no surprise for them. Their battle cry swelled in volume, fierce with anger, but Henry, Shif'less Sol, and Tom Ross were already running back upon the camp, sounding the alarm, and the men, roused from sleep, were springing to arms.

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