The Free Rangers

by Joseph A. Altsheler

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Chapter XXII. The Chosen Task

Adam Colfax had gone through the battle unharmed, but that terrible night left new gray in his hair. He was a religious man, and, when the rifle fire died down in the forest and then went out, he uttered a devout prayer of thankfulness. He and his train, on the whole, had come through better than he had expected. There had been moments in the bayou when he thought no mortal strength or skill could break the chain that bound them. But the savage army and navy had been beaten off, and the core of his fleet was saved. He could still go on to Pittsburgh with his precious cargo.

The trumpet was sounded again, and the boats, drawing together, began to count their losses. It was a long sad count, but those who survived were elated over their great victory.

It was then that Adam Colfax discovered the absence of the five who had helped him so much. Some one had seen them spring ashore to protect the escape of the skirmishers, and he ordered the fleet once toward the land to save them, or, if too late, to bring their bodies to the boat.

A dozen boats swung in toward the bank and that of Adam Colfax was foremost. He was not conscious of the gentle rain, save that it felt cooling and pleasant on his face after the heat and smoke of the battle. Yet the brain of the stern New Hampshire man was still fevered, too. The battle had ceased, but the roar of the cannon-shots and the crash of the rifles yet echoed in his ears. The black forest that came down to the water's edge, was full of mystery and terror, and his was no timid heart. Smoke of the battle drifted among the trees or over the river, and the rain did not drive it all away. In the far distance low thunder muttered, and now and then flashes of heat lightning drew a belt of coppery red along the dark horizon.

Adam Colfax, stern man that he was, shuddered. But he would not flinch. He was the first to spring ashore. The forest assumed its most somber aspect. The trees were weird and ghostly, and there was no sound at all but the gentle drip, drip of the rain. Here the vapors and mists seemed to be imprisoned by the boughs and foliage, and the odors were heavy and acrid.

He had landed upon a little neck of land, and some one remarked: "It was here that the Kentuckians landed." But there was no sound in the forest and the scouts had reported already that the enemy had gone away. A great fear gripped at the heart of Adam Colfax. "They are all dead," he thought.

Men brought torches, as they no longer had any fear of sharpshooters; and Adam Colfax, followed by twenty others, entered the forest. The wind rose slightly and whipped the rain in his face, but he stepped into the deepest shadow, and, taking a torch from one of the men, held it aloft with his own hand. The light fell upon a little open space and, despite himself, Adam Colfax uttered a cry.

A figure lay outstretched under the shelter of arching boughs and bushes, and four more beside it were still and silent, leaning against a fallen log. There was such an absolute lack of motion, that Colfax at first thought that the soul of every one was sped.

"Good God! Dead! All dead!" he exclaimed.

But a great figure quickly uprose.

"No," said Henry Ware, a fine smile passing over his boyish face. "We beat them off, and we're just resting and waiting. Only Paul is seriously hurt, and so far we've been afraid to move him."

Shif'less Sol, Jim Hart, and Tom Ross rose, too, and shook the raindrops from their clothes.

"We didn't have good shelter here," said Shif'less Sol, "but I think the rain and its coolness have helped Paul."

Adam Colfax bent over the boy and, in the dawning light, made a critical examination.

"He will live," he said. "We'd have come to your relief long ago, had we known you were here."

"It was Braxton Wyatt who led the last attack against us," said Henry, "and as usual, he has had the good luck to escape. At least, we can't find his body here, and I haven't the slightest doubt that he's living to do more mischief and that we'll meet him again."

It was true, and a diligent search revealed no trace of Wyatt. He had escaped, fleeing North after the battle, to rejoin his old friends, the Shawnees and Miamis.

Paul was lifted gently, after receiving treatment from the surgeon of the fleet, and carried to a boat, where he regained consciousness. His wound was severe, but his blood was so healthy that he would recover, according to the surgeon, with great rapidity.

When all five were together, Adam Colfax said to them collectively:

"You did the most of all to save the fleet."

That was enough reward for them.

The body of Father Montigny was buried in the forest, and a little wooden cross was put at his head. Christian burial was given to the body of Alvarez, too, and the supply fleet prepared for a new start.

     *    *    *    *

The fleet, two weeks later, was making its slow progress northward on the Mississippi. The great river was in an uncommonly friendly mood. Its usual yellow seemed silver in the brilliant morning light. Heavy masses of green fringed either low shore, and keen pleasant odors came from the wilderness.

Oliver Pollock, hearing of the battle of the bayou, had sent a second detachment from New Orleans to replace the men and boats lost and the ammunition shot away by the first, and now, stronger than ever, it continued under the brave and skillful leadership of Adam Colfax, on its great mission.

The five sat in the end of one of the largest boats, under the shade of a sail. Paul's strength was fast coming back; he would not suffer the slightest harm, and they were happy.

"This is jest the life fur a lazy man like me," said Shif'less Sol. "Nothin' to do but go on an' on, with people to wait on you, an' say you hey already done your part."

"We have had a wonderful escape," said Paul.

The face of the shiftless one became grave, even reverent.

"So we hev, Paul," he said. "Seems to me sometimes that we wuz spared fur a purpose. We wouldn't hev come alive, every one of us, through all that, ef it hadn't been intended that we should go on with the work that we are doin', helpin' and defendin' our people the best we kin. I think we've been chose."

"I think so, too," said Paul, "and here and now we should devote ourselves to it, as long as it is needed. I want to do so. Are the rest of you willing?"

"I am," said Henry with emphasis.

"And I!" said the shiftless one.

"And I!" said Tom Ross.

"And I!" said Long Jim.

"Amen!" said Paul.


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