The Free Rangers by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XII. The Shadow in the Forest
Luiz and his comrades escorted Henry back to the prison, and the expressive face of Luiz showed pleasure. He made a vigorous pantomime and spoke words in Spanish.
"Yes, I understand your meaning if not your language, my friend," said Henry, "and I thank you. I am glad to know that I have your good will."
When the door of his prison was thrown open and Henry was then shut in again with his comrades they looked at him expectantly.
"Well?" said Paul.
"What happened?" said Long Jim.
"Anything to tell?" said Tom Ross.
"How's your shoulder, Paul?" asked Henry.
"Fast getting well," replied Paul, who knew that his comrade would speak in his own good time.
Henry sat on the floor and leaned against the wall in as comfortable a position as he could assume. Then he looked rather humorously at his comrades.
"Alvarez wanted to bribe me," he said.
"To bribe you? What do you mean?"
"Yes, to bribe me - and all of us together. He wanted us to serve him here in Louisiana, and help him in an attempt to bring over Kentucky to Spain."
"That is, he wanted to make Braxton Wyatts out of us?" said Paul.
"You put it exactly right, Paul," said Henry. "I laughed at him, and called him by the names that belonged to him. He brought in Braxton Wyatt and the soldiers and ordered me to be put in irons, there in his presence."
"What!" exclaimed Paul, "did he dare that, too?"
"Yes. His object, of course, was to humiliate me - and all of us. It was stopped by one who came in at the right moment. You couldn't guess who it was."
"It must a-been Shif'less Sol," said Long Jim, whose mind ran to physical deeds. "I guess he sent a bullet right into the middle uv that rascal crew. Sol's the boy to be right on the spot when he's needed."
"No, Jim," he said. "That's a pretty wild guess. It was none other than Father Montigny, the man whom we helped. He paid us back sooner than we thought. You ought to have seen him, Paul. He looked like an avenging angel. He stood there, a single, unarmed man, and they were afraid of him. I could see fear on every one of their faces."
Paul's vivid imagination instantly painted the whole scene. It appealed to him with tremendous power. It was the triumph of mind and character over force and wickedness.
"I can see Father Montigny now," he said. "A man who always does right and has no fear whatever of death, is afraid of nothing, either in this world or the world to come."
"Which gives him a pow'ful sight uv freedom," said Long Jim.
"When he told them to stop they took away their balls and chain," said Henry, "and sent me back here. Alvarez realized that he had gone too far, but I think that he fears Father Montigny for other reasons, too. The priest may put the Governor General on his guard."
"So we ain't alone," said Long Jim musingly. "Curious how you git help when you ain't expectin' it. The wicked hev it their way fur a while, an' then they don't. They don't ever seem able to finish up their work. Sometimes I think the right is jest like a river flowin' on in its nateral channel, an' boun' to git to the sea after a while, no matter what happens. The wrong is all them dams, an' san' bars an' snags, and brush an' drift-wood that people an' chance pile up in the way. They do choke up the waters, an' send 'em around in other channels. They can make a heap uv trouble, but by and by them waters git to the sea jest the same."
"I hope so, Jim," said Paul.
"Now thar ain't no doubt uv what I say," said Long Jim.. "Take this case uv ourn. Jest when we need it most fur a thousand miles uv river travel we git a bee-yu-ti-ful boat, all fitted up with everything we want. Jest when that Spaniard gits his paws on us, he don't git his paws on one uv us, an' that's Shif'less Sol out thar in the woods. An' so long ez Shif'less So! is free out thar in the woods we're mighty nigh free ourselves. Then, when this same Spaniard is ready to load irons on Henry in a way that no free-born man kin stand, in pops a priest who likes us - an' we don't belong to his church either - an' puts a stop to the whole thing."
While they were talking Francisco Alvarez also was busy with a kindred theme, as he entertained a guest. That guest was Father Montigny, to whom he had made up his mind to be courteous, although he would not condescend to any further apology. He ordered that the priest should receive food and attention, and that men should look after and replenish his canoe which was now tied in the bayou. After all these orders were given, Alvarez sat in the great room of Beaulieu and smoked the cigarro of his time.
There was a bitter drop in the well of his satisfaction. The coming of the priest had been unforeseen and unfortunate. He knew Father Montigny, and Father Montigny knew him. Now how much did Father Montigny know of his plans? That was the important question.
While he was yet speaking, Father Montigny, whom a very little of rest and food always sufficed, entered the room, his manner full of austerity. Francisco Alvarez rose, all blandness and courtesy.
"Be seated, Father," he said. "It is a poor place that we have here, but we give you of our best. Who would deserve it more than you, a man of such long travels and such great hardships in the holiest of all causes?"
The face of the priest did not relax. He sat down upon one of the cane chairs and gazed sternly at Alvarez. Truly, it is a terrible thing to meet the accusing gaze of a man who fears neither torture, nor death, nor the world to come! The accusation is likely to be true. Alvarez looked away. Twice within one day he who, with reason, thought himself so courageous had been forced to yield to the gaze of another, and his heart was full of angry rebellion. But he knew that knowledge and power dwelt under the simple black robe of this man.
"It seems," said Father Montigny, and there was a slight touch of irony in his tone, "that I came at the right moment."
Francisco Alvarez compelled his face to smile, though his heart was raging.
"I have already apologized, Father Montigny," he said, "for what I was about to do. And yet the phrase 'about to do' is wrong. Even if you had not come I should have repented of myself, and sent away the irons. I can repeat, too, in my defense that I was provoked beyond endurance by this youth's insolence."
His tone was silky, light, indolent, as if he would dismiss a trifle about which too much had been said already. It might have been convincing to any other man, but he felt the stern, reproving gaze of Father Montigny still fixed upon him.
"And what of the ring and the professional swordsman?" said the priest. "Are you to turn a youth to a gladiator, even as the blessed martyrs were given to the lions and tigers by the Roman pagans! What of that, Francisco Alvarez? Are such deeds to be done, here, in our day, in Louisiana, and to pass unchallenged?"
The priest's voice rose and it cut like the sharp edge of a knife. Never since his boyhood had Francisco Alvarez flushed more deeply, and he moved uneasily on his cane chair.
"You give it a name that does not belong to it," he said. "It was play, or not much more. Romildo, the swordsman, had orders not to hurt him much."
"That may or may not be true, Francisco Alvarez," said the priest, speaking slowly and precisely. "But I have more to ask you. What of this plot of yours to set the Indian tribes and a Spanish force with cannon upon Kaintock? What of your plan to become Governor General in place of Galvez? What of your intention to make distant war upon the rebel colonies and therefore commit Spain to an alliance with England? Answer me, Francisco Alvarez. What of these things?"
The priest rose from his seat, as he spoke, and lifted that stern, accusing finger. Alvarez was as still as if struck by lightning. His great plan known to this man, this man who feared not even torture, or death, or the world to come! He shrank visibly both mentally and physically, but then his courage came back under the spur of dreadful necessity.
"A priest can take great liberties," he said. "Sometimes I think it scarcely fair that you of the Book may denounce us of the sword and that we may say nothing in return, although we may be right and you may be wrong. It is sufficient now for me to tell you that I do not know what you are talking about. I, the Governor General! Any man may dream of that! I have done so, and I have no doubt that many others have done the same. I favor, too, an alliance with England, as do nearly all the Spanish officers in Louisiana, but I am a faithful servant of His Majesty, the King, and though I may hold my opinions, I know of no plot, either against Bernardo Galvez or to make a war upon Kaintock."
"I have heard you, Francisco Alvarez," said the priest, "but it is for your actions to prove the truth of your words. See to it, also, that there is no further cruelty practiced against these men from Kaintock."
"They are my prisoners," replied Alvarez, "and I mean to hold them. There you cannot interfere, Father Montigny. They were taken in arms against us upon our soil of Louisiana, and that they are my prisoners even you cannot dispute.
"No," replied Father Montigny. "I do not dispute it; at least not for the present. But if they are held as prisoners they should be sent to Bernardo Galvez at New Orleans, and not be retained here."
He walked out without waiting for an answer, and Francisco Alvarez was glad to see him go. Five minutes later the Spaniard sent for Braxton Wyatt and the two remained long in consultation. Meanwhile, something was stirring in the forest not far from Beaulieu. It was a forest of magnolia, willow, and cypress, and of oaks, from which hung great solemn festoons of moss. A deep still bayou cut across it, and here and there were pools of stagnant water, in which coiling black forms swam.
Night was deepening over the wilderness upon which the estate of Beaulieu had made only a scratch. Pale moonlight fell over the drooping green forest and across the deep waters of the bayou. The something that had stirred resolved itself into the shadowy figure of a man who came out of the heart of the forest toward its edge. He walked with a singularly agile step. His moccasined feet made no noise when they touched the ground and the bushes seemed to part for the passage of his body.
When the man reached the edge of the forest next to the Chateau of Beaulieu, he paused for a long time, standing in the shadow of the trees. Always he looked fixedly at a single building, the log hut, in which Alvarez held his four prisoners from Kaintock. While he stood there, stray rays of moonlight coming through the cypresses fell upon him, revealing a tanned face, yellow hair, and a tall, athletic form. He did not look like a Spaniard or an Acadian, or one of the Frenchmen who had emigrated from Canada, or any kind of a West Indian.
His was certainly an alien presence in those regions. The moon slid back behind a cloud, the silver rays failed, and the figure of the man became more indistinct, almost a shadow, thin and impalpable. Then he bent far over in a stooping position, passed rapidly through a patch of scrub bushes, and came much nearer to the log prison.
At the edge of the bushes he stopped again and watched the prison for at least a minute. Two soldiers were on watch in front of it before the single door, two soldiers in Spanish uniform, who were suffering from tedium, and who were quite sure, anyway, that unarmed prisoners could not escape from a one-room building of logs with but a single door, secured by a huge, oak shutter, and two windows, each too small to admit the passage of a boy's or man's body.
The two soldiers slouched in their walk, and presently, when their beats met before the door, they let the butts of their guns rest on the ground, and exchanged pleasant talk about pretty, dark girls that they had known in far-away Spain. One boldly lighted a cigarrito and the other encouraged by his example did likewise. Hark, what was that? "A lizard in the grass," said Carlos. "Yes, certainly," said Juan. They continued to smoke their cigarritos blissfully, and talk of the pretty, dark girls that they had known in far-away Spain.
As they smoked and talked, and found smoke, talk, and company pleasant, they did not see a shadow glide swiftly from the bushes and pass to the rear of the log prison that they were guarding so well. Nor could they see the shadow, since the building was now between them, resolve itself again into the figure of a man, who stood upright against the wall, his face at one of the little slits of windows.
Their own talk was so pleasant, and the sound of their voices was such a cure for lonesomeness on a dark night, that they did not hear the man at the little slit of a window utter a faint warning hiss. Nor did they hear something a moment later fall with a slight metalic sound on the bark floor of the prison. The sound was repeated in an instant, but still they did not hear it, and then the figure of a man, melting back to a shadow, glided away from the house and into the bushes and thence to the forest, where it was lost.
Carlos and Juan chatted until their cigarritos were smoked out. Then they shouldered their muskets and continued the watch that seemed to them so easy. How could unarmed men escape through such a thickness of logs? The shadow in the forest was lost to the sight of any possible Spaniard, but not to the sight of another shadow that arose from the bushes and flitted after it. The two shadows were now deep in the forest, but the second hung close on the first, making no noise, and sinking quickly to the ground, when the other looked back.
This second shadow, as it passed through a partially open space, also revealed itself in the moonlight as a man, but a man ghastly and terrible in appearance. He had a hideous, feline face, and he was naked, save a breech-cloth at the waist. He carried but a single weapon, a knife in his ready hand, but the eyes were those of the most utter savage expecting a speedy prey.
The first shadow reached a little grove free from undergrowth and stopped. He was about to lie down, rifle by his side, and seek sleep, but his ear, attuned to the wilderness, caught a faint sound. It was not the wind among the leaves, nor the gliding of a snake, nor the chirp of an insect, but a sound that was not a part of the night harmony. The sensitive ear had given him warning, as the instinct of an animal warns that an enemy has come.
The first shadow slid from the grove and into the undergrowth, sank low, and, waiting, caught sight of the second shadow, the man who pursued. He saw the naked figure, the feline face, and the ready knife in hand. The skill and wonderful forest intuition of the second man had been matched by those of the first.
The pursued, when he caught that glimpse of his pursuer, laid his rifle carefully on the earth, because he did not wish a shot to be heard, and drew his own knife. Slight as was the sound that he made the other heard it, turned in a flash, and the two sprang at each other.
The moonlight streamed for a moment along their knife blades and then they struck. One stepped back, and remained standing upright. The other swayed a moment and then fell without a sound, lying upon his back.
He who lay staring with sightless eyes up at the moon was the man with the feline face and the body naked save for the cloth at the waist. The other, unharmed, stood, looking at him a moment or two, and then plunged deeper into the forest.
Morning dawned. The sun swung up through a terrace of rosy clouds, and Luiz brought the four their breakfast, callas tous chauds, other food of La Louisiane, and milk and coffee. They ate and drank with a great appetite, and it seemed to Luiz that they were quite cheerful, for which he was truly glad, because one of these men had saved his life, and the wounded youth who made an especial appeal to him had been subjected to barbarous treatment. But Paul could use his injured arm already. His was so healthy that the scratch of the sword healed fast.
Three hours later Francisco Alvarez and Braxton Wyatt entered the prison. The renegade was not above showing by his looks that he rejoiced in his triumph over his enemies, but the face of Alvarez was without expression.
"I have come to tell you," said the Spaniard, "that you will be held here subject to my will. But you will not be treated badly. At such time as I think fit you may be taken to New Orleans."
"It seems that the words of Father Montigny were not to be despised," said Henry maliciously.
"Father Montigny disposes of nothing here," said Alvarez. "This is to be done because I think it best."
Then he and Wyatt went out, but that afternoon when Alvarez was sitting in the cool shadow of the pillared portico, there came to him a man, dusty, and riding fast, who delivered to him a document sealed with red seals, and important in appearance.
When Alvarez read the paper he frowned, and then cursed under his breath. It was written in plain letters and its meaning was plain, also. It stated that Bernardo Galvez, the Governor General at New Orleans, had learned that his brave and loyal captain, Don Francisco Louis Philip Ferdinand Alvarez, held in his possession four prisoners from Kaintock, persons of daring, whose presence in Louisiana might be of great significance. Therefore His Excellency, Bernardo Galvez, Governor General of Louisiana, commanded his trusty and loyal captain, Don Francisco Louis Philip Ferdinand Alvarez, to bring the aforesaid four prisoners, from Kaintock, to New Orleans at once.
"At once!" repeated Alvarez angrily to himself. "That means not next week but now, and I am compelled to obey. To refuse or to evade would make a breach too soon."
He sent for Braxton Wyatt and told him of the letter. The renegade was startled, but he counseled immediate obedience from motives of policy.
"How could Galvez have known?" said Alvarez. "How could the news have reached New Orleans so soon?"
"Perhaps the priest has told," suggested Wyatt.
"No, that is impossible. He came from up river, and I am glad to say that he left again in his canoe this morning. Those Capuchins to whom he belongs shall be well punished, if I gain the power in Louisiana. They shall be expelled, every one of them, from New Orleans, and their old rivals, the Jesuits, shall take their place. It's one of the first things that I mean to do."
"It would be a wise thing to do," said Braxton Wyatt. He cared nothing for either Capuchin or Jesuit, but he hated and feared Father Montigny, and would be glad to know that he was driven from the country.
"We must start in the morning" said Alvarez. "It will not take us long to reach New Orleans by the river, and I can spin a tale that will lull the suspicions of Galvez."
"You can prove many things by me," said Braxton Wyatt significantly.
"Yes, Senior Wyatt, you are a good lieutenant," said Alvarez, and he meant it. We will make our preparations to-night and start with a strong force in the morning. We need not bring the prisoners forth until we are ready."
Alvarez slept peacefully that night. He had recovered his spirits, shaken by the arrival of the King's messenger. Aided by the dexterous renegade, Braxton Wyatt, he would soon persuade Bernardo Galvez that he had acted for the best in the matter of the men from Kaintock.
He rose early the next morning and, as a mark of signal favor, invited Braxton Wyatt to take breakfast with him. While they sat together Luiz came in with a long face.
"Now what is it, my brave Luiz?" said Alvarez, who was in an exceeding good humor, "why this saturnine countenance?"
"I beg to report, your Excellency," said Luiz, "that the Natchez Indian whom they call The Cat has been found dead in the forest, of a knife thrust that came out behind the shoulder."
"That is bad," said Alvarez. "Have they found out who did it?"
"No, Your Excellency. There were some signs of a struggle, and a few traces of foot-steps, but the trail was gone before they had followed it a dozen yards."
"We have lost a good man," said Alvarez, "a matchless spy and trailer, but it cannot be helped. I suppose it was a quarrel with some savage like himself. I would investigate the matter, but we have not time now. Come, Luiz, we will take out the prisoners, and then to the boats."
He led the way across the grass to the log house, two sentinels, again it was Carlos and Juan, walked up and down in front of it, and the Spanish captain was pleased at their vigilance. He gave them a very good morning as they saluted respectfully.
"Unlock the door, Luiz," he said. "This is a strong prison and a close one. I've no doubt our gallants from Kaintock, where there is much room, will be glad to be outside again."
Luiz inserted the huge iron key, turned it in the lock, and threw wide the door. Alvarez looked in, and then uttered a cry so charged with rage that even Braxton Wyatt was startled. He pressed close up to his chief and gazed over his shoulder. The prison was empty!
"What does this mean?" shouted Alvarez at the trembling sentinels. "The prisoners have escaped! Idiots! Blind men! What have you been doing? Have you helped them yourselves? If it is so, both of you shall be shot!"
The unfortunates, Carlos and Juan, stared at the empty prison and crossed themselves. "Witchcraft," muttered Carlos, the readier of the two. "We have watched faithfully all night, my captain. We saw nothing, we heard nothing, and the door was locked, as you behold. We are honest men and we have been faithful!"
Braxton Wyatt pointed to the dark corner of the prison. "See," he said, "that is how they went."
Heaped against the wall was a pile of dirt, and in its place a hole large enough to admit a man's body led under the logs. The Spaniard cried out in rage again.
"We see how they have gone!" he exclaimed, "but in what way did they do it? Who has helped them!"
Braxton Wyatt examined the tunnel. The bottom logs of the cabin rested squarely upon the ground, after the primitive fashion. The floor was of bark, and a section of this had been lifted. The prisoners had then dug their hole under the log.
"It was done with metal tools of some kind," said Wyatt. "But they had nothing when we locked them in here. I can swear to that, as I was one of those who searched them well."
"Then they must have had help!" exclaimed Alvarez, and again he turned fiercely upon the sentinels, but Braxton Wyatt intervened. He was glad that he could patronize Alvarez at least once and show himself to be the superior in discernment.
"These men, Your Excellency, of whom I told you to beware, were five," he said. "We captured four, therefore one was left, and I said beware of him, even alone. He is a fellow of great cunning and skill who would try anything. He has come for his comrades, and he has taken them away with him."
"It must be as you say," said Alvarez, seeking now to hide his anger. He was not sorry on the whole that the sentinels were obviously innocent, as he needed as many adherents as he could keep, in order to carry out his great plan.
"Knowing that the window was too small to admit them, we watched only the front where the door is, Your Excellency," said Carlos, still trembling. "Who would have dreamed that these men of Kaintock were magicians, that without picks or shovels they could burrow under the earth and be gone like ghosts."
"Begone yourselves!" exclaimed Alvarez. "Get ready for the boats at once!"
Carlos and Juan fled away, glad to escape the sight of their master.
"Now that they have escaped, what do you think they will do?" asked Alvarez of Wyatt.
"They will go to New Orleans," replied the renegade promptly, "and appear before Bernardo Galvez to denounce you."
"Then our own start must not be delayed a moment!" exclaimed Alvarez.
In an hour he and his force were ready to embark.