The Free Rangers

by Joseph A. Altsheler

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Chapter XXI. The Defense of the Five

Henry Ware was first on land, Shif'less Sol came just behind him, and then the other three. The boat from which they had leaped, and which now contained but two oarsmen, swung back a little into the stream, and in a moment the darkness, closing down, shut it from view. They stood in a patch of undergrowth and the battle still flamed around them on the bayou, on the river, and in the woods. It was now fiercest in the forest, which crackled with the rifle shots and the sound of singing bullets. Innumerable jets of flame sparkled here and there, and then went out, to be succeeded instantly by others.

Many of the Indian canoes had been sunk by the explosion or the sweep of the supply fleet, but it was easy for their occupants, if not seriously wounded, to escape to the land, and they greatly increased the savage swarm in the woods, chiefly on the north bank of the bayou. Henry and his friends could hear their warning cries to one another, even their tread, and they realized that their own skirmishers in the woods would be pressed hard. Only a determined effort could hold back the horde long enough for the men to reach the fleet.

While they stood there, seeking the best thing to do, two skirmishers dashed up, breathless, both slightly wounded, and exclaiming that they were pursued by a formidable force.

"Jump into the water!" cried Henry. "The boats are only a few yards away! We'll hold back the savages!"

There were two plunks, as the skirmishers sprang into the Mississippi, sinking a moment from sight, and then, as they reappeared, swimming swiftly for the boats. Behind them came their pursuers in a swarm, but they were driven back by the rifle fire of the little party from Kentucky. Another skirmisher burst through the bushes, and, helped in the same way, sprang into the Mississippi, swimming for the boats. Then came a fourth and a fifth and everyone escaped as the others had done.

"It's well we came," said Henry. This is not the least of our task. Lie down, boys."

They stretched themselves on the damp earth, the great, yellow river close behind them, and the forest in front swarming with the savage force. They had expected other men who had landed to come to their aid, but the parties had become separated in the darkness and confusion of the battle, and they were left alone. Nevertheless a dauntless heart beat in every breast, and they expected to hold that neck of land, which seemed to be a channel for the pursued, until the last fugitive was safe.

Lying upon their faces, half supported by their elbows, they could load and fire whenever they saw a hostile figure in front of them. Again and again the pursuit of a skirmisher was driven back by these deadly riflemen. Now and then a cannon shot fired from their own fleet whistled over their heads and struck in the forest among their foes, but they paid no attention to it. They were intent upon their own work and every faculty was concentrated for the task.

They had the bayou on one side and a little bay of the river on the other, and they could not be surrounded by land. The foe was always straight before them, in a way, eye to eye, and there they sent bullets that rarely missed.

A fever was in their blood, the long battle, its tremendous events, and the new phase that it had now assumed, set every nerve to going. Certain faculties useless for that crisis had become atrophied for the time. They no longer heard the sounds of the cannon shots over their heads or the shouts of the men on the boats, they saw and heard nothing but their own battle and what lay directly in front of them.

The position was growing more dangerous. Their searching fire had drawn upon them an enemy always increasing in numbers. The savages converged front of them in a semicircle, and their fire was heavier and heavier. Bullets whistled over them struck the earth about them, or clipped their clothing.

Another fugitive passed them and escaped, and then yet another. It was evident that their task was not yet done, and they would not leave, although the fire poured upon them, still increased in heat and the bullets came in showers.

Presently the attack seemed to veer away from them somewhat, as if the attention of the enemy were turned elsewhere, and Paul, who was at the end of the line, crept forward a little in the thicket. The fever was still burning in his veins and he was anxious to see what lay in front of him. He did not hear the warning cries of his comrades, or, if hearing, he did not heed them. He was still burning with the desire to see what lay there in the depths of the forest. Paul, the scholar, the thinker, the future statesman, had become transformed. In such a surcharged atmosphere he, too, had turned into the primitive man, the fighter, the man who looks upon every other man not proven a friend, as his natural enemy. The bullets had ceased for the time being to whistle above his head and to strike up the earth about him. He became conscious once more of the cannon shots, shrieking over him, and the crash of the rifle fire came from right and left.

A stick broke under Paul and he heard a shout in front of him. The shout was so fierce, so fully charged with malice, that he sprang to his feet as if he had been propelled by an electric shock. He stood face to face with Don Francisco Alvarez, the plotter, the rebel, and leader of the attacking army, a wild and terrible figure, clothes torn, bleeding from wounds, but animated now by a savage joy. His pistol was leveled at the surprised youth, and the next moment the deadly bullet would have been sped, but a tall black-robed figure rose up from the bushes and threw Alvarez back.

"Francisco Alvarez, thou hast done crime enough already!" exclaimed the priest.

Alvarez regained his balance, cast one look of hate at the man who had intervened, and cried:

"Ha! it is you, priest, who have come in my way once more! Then go the way of martyrdom!"

Turning his pistol he fired the bullet full into the black-robed chest, and Father Montigny fell dying.

Paul stood still, unable to move. Every muscle in him was paralyzed by this deed which seemed to him not murder alone, but sacrilege. Of all the events of that terrible night this was the worst. But a man behind Paul, retained every faculty, alive and alert. Up rose Shif'less Sol, his honest face ablaze with wrath. His rifle flew to his shoulder, his finger pressed the trigger, and the soul of Don Francisco Alvarez, grandee of Spain, sped to judgment from the darkness and obscurity of the North American wilderness.

"Come back, Paul! Come back!" cried Shif'less Sol, seizing the youth by the shoulder.

"But Father Montigny is dying!" cried Paul, falling upon his knees beside the priest. The tears ran down his cheeks and fell upon the pale face of the dying man.

Paul and Father Montigny, Protestant and Catholic, young man and old, were kindred spirits, and each had felt it from the first. In the soul of each was the same mysticism, the same imaginative quality, the same spiritual eye always looking into the future. It had occurred more than once to the priest that, if he had remained outside the cloth, and had lived as other men lived, he would have wished such a son as Paul.

Now he smiled and opened his eyes as he saw this beloved youth of his later days weeping over him, as he lay in the forest with his death wound. The one face that he wished most to see beside him, as he drew his last breath, was there.

"Paul!" he said, "Paul, my son! Do not weep. It is the fate - in one form or another - of all who travel in these woods - on such missions as mine. I have long expected it - and I have often wondered that it has been delayed so long. I escape, too, the torture - that more than one of my brethren has suffered."

He reached out one hand, and put it lightly upon Paul's bare head. There it lay and Paul felt it grow cold upon him.

"Come away, Paul," said the shiftless one gently.

"The good priest is dead. It's the livin' that need our help."

Bullets began to whistle from the thickets. The battle converged toward them again, and Paul knew that he was needed to help the others hold the little neck of land so important to all. A cannon shot shrieked over his head, and then another. Once more they were the focus of the combat. The forest in front of them sparkled as rapidly as before with beads of flame.

Paul rose reluctantly and turned away. The priest lay on his back, his face, pale and perfectly peaceful, upturned to the skies. Alvarez was a dozen yards away, but his figure, still forever, was motionless in the shadows. Paul did not bestow a glance upon him, but he gave Father Montigny a last long look of affection and sorrow as he turned away.

"Down, Paul, down!" cried Henry, when Paul and Shif'less Sol reached the others. "We saw what happened! You cannot do anything for him now!"

He dragged Paul down, and in an instant all of them turned their full energy to the defense. The attack upon them was renewed with uncommon fire and fury. The Indians and desperadoes wished to pass that particular neck of land in order that they might pour a storm of bullets upon the crippled fleet and the skirmishers who were yet coming in; but the little band, headed by Henry Ware, still held them back.

Henry looked once or twice toward the river and saw the boats hovering far out in the stream. He judged that, in the darkness and confusion, Adam Colfax no longer knew where the Kentuckians were and it was even possible that he might lose them entirely; but the fact did not shake Henry's resolve. It was vital that they should hold the neck, and he intended to do it. He and his comrades, lying close together, replied rapidly and with deadly aim to the fire in front of them, forming a compact little body, with blazing rifles, which the savage army was not yet able to displace.

The night darkened, there were signs of rain, induced perhaps, by so much firing; the moon was completely hidden by gathering clouds; the river became a black, flowing mass and the boats upon it blurred with its surface, save when they leaped into the light in the blaze of a cannon shot. The woods, too, seemed a solid, black wall, along the front of which rifle shots sparkled in clusters.

"Good boys! good boys!" exclaimed Henry in low tones, surcharged with excitement. He, too, had the mounting blood hot in his brain. All the old primeval passion was flaming in him. But the fire of the enemy converged nearer and nearer, and the bullets sang a ceaseless little song in his ears as they passed. "Ah!" he exclaimed as one struck him in the arm. But that was all he said. He went on with his loading and firing.

"Are you hit, Henry?" asked Shif'less Sol.

"A scratch! Nothing more! Look how Long Jim fights!"

Long Jim was almost flat upon his face, but the man, usually so mild and good tempered, was now wholly possessed by the rage of combat. His long thin figure fitted around the sinuosities of the earth, and he seemed to have a curious gliding motion, sliding forward slowly to meet the enemy. The darkness was nothing now to his accustomed eyes, and he sent his bullets with sure aim toward the shadowy forms in the bushes in front of them. Long Jim forgot everything now but his rifle and the enemy there in the thicket. He slid further and further, still drawing himself over the ground in that terrible semblance of a serpent. Paul, seeing his face, was frightened. "Jim! Jim! " he cried. "Stop!" But Long Jim slid slowly on. Tom Ross said something, but it was lost in the whistling of a cannon shot overhead.

They saw Long Jim stop the next moment, and Paul believed that he heard him utter a little sigh. Long Jim's limbs contracted and straightened out again with a jerk. Then he turned slowly over on his side and lay still, a moment or two, after which he began to writhe violently. At the same time he clapped his hand to his head and it came back red.

"Sol sometimes says I've a thick skull, an' 'ef so it's a good thing," he muttered to himself.

He shook his head again and again, as if to clear it, and crept back to his friends. There he tore off a portion of his deerskin hunting shirt, tied it tightly around the wound, and went on with his firing.

"Don't be too enthusiastic, Jim," said Henry.

"I won't," replied Long Jim, "I'm cured."

Lower crouched the five, taking advantage of the bushes and little hillocks, and sending a bullet every time they saw a flitting figure in the forest in front of them. Behind them they could still hear the roar of the combat on the river. The crackle of the rifles and the muskets was steady in their ears, while now and then the note of a cannon boomed above it, and a solid shot, curving over their heads, whizzed into the thickets. But they paid little attention to the main battle; it was merely a chorus, a background, as it were, for their own corner of the struggle, which absorbed all their energies.

Their fire was so incessant, it was so well aimed, and it stung the allied army so severely, that an increasing force was steadily concentrating in front of them. Nor did they escape wholly unhurt. A bullet grazed Henry's arm and another did the same for Shif'less Sol's shoulder; but neither paid any attention to his wounds, loading and reloading, facing the enemy with undiminished zeal and courage.

Its whole aspect was now a phantom battle to them all. The incessant crash and roaring in their ears, and the smoke and vapor in their nostrils, heated their brains and made everything look unreal. They were but phantoms themselves, and the foes who leaped about in the forest were phantoms, too. Darker and darker the clouds rolled up and the smoke and vapors thickened in the forest, but through the blackness the lines of flame still replied to each other.

Paul's excitement was so great that he could not keep himself down. He was burning with fever, but passion seemed to be departing from him. He thought that, if they were all to die, it was a privilege to die together. He saw now the deep cool wood, a beautiful lake, and an island enclosed within it, like a green gem in a blue setting. Paul's thoughts, and his vision with them, were wandering into the past.

"Steady, Paul, steady!" said Henry. But Paul saw nothing now. A bullet, singing merrily, gave him a leaden kiss, and he sank down very gently, lying upon one arm, the red fast dyeing his buckskin hunting shirt.

Henry gave a cry when he saw Paul fall, and bent anxiously over his friend. The light was faint, but the bullet seemed to have gone entirely through the youth. Henry put his ear to his chest, and could hear his heart still beating, though faintly.

"Hold 'em back!" he shouted to his friends, "and I'll help Paul!" Shif'less Sol, Tom, and Long Jim, although overwhelmed with anxiety for their young comrade, steadily turned their faces toward the foe, and replied to his fire. Henry, while the bullets whistled above his head, bent down and cut away Paul's hunting shirt. Yes, the bullet had gone entirely through his body and it was lucky for Paul that it had done so. No need now of the surgeon's probe. Henry bound up the wound tightly and stopped the bleeding. Then he undertook to lift the lad; but Paul, although still unconscious and a dead weight in his arms, groaned with pain. Henry laid him gently back on the ground.

"Boys," he said, "Paul is too weak to be moved, and we've got to hold this place until help comes or the enemy quits."

"I think the last skirmisher has escaped now," said Shif'less Sol, "but here we stay."

He spoke for them all, and Henry, unable to do anything more for Paul, turned his attention anew to the enemy. There was a sudden increase of the firing in front. The clouds and vapors rolled back, and the dancing figures in the thickets took on more semblance of reality. Suddenly Henry uttered a cry. His eyes of almost preternatural keenness had recognized one of the figures.

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

"Braxton Wyatt. He's in the thicket. I saw him a moment ago. I know his face and figure too well to be mistaken."

"I saw him, too," replied the shiftless one. "0' course he's escaped the bullets so fur. It's jest his luck."

"I think he knows we're here," said Henry, "and he's leading the attack on us. But we'll never yield this ground and Paul to such a fellow."

"No!" said the others with one voice.

The clouds and vapors closed in again. The darkness rolled up in wave after wave, and the renegade, leading on outlaw and red man, pressed the attack; but the four met them with courage and spirit unshaken.

The clouds and vapors rolled over attack and defense, but through the darkness fire answered fire. After a while the forest and the bayou, which had witnessed such a desperate display of human energy, sank into darkness and silence. The clouds, now in the zenith, began to give forth rain, but it was a gentle, beneficent rain, and it fell silently on the faces of the living and the dead alike.

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