The Free Rangers by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XIX. The Battle of the Bank
"What is it? What is it?" cried Adam Colfax, as the three sentinels, who were worth all the others combined, dashed into the camp.
"An Indian army!" replied Henry Ware. "We do not yet know how strong, but we have seen their scouts! Hark to them!"
The fierce war whoop rose and swelled through all the forest, died away, then swelled and died again. From the dark wall of the trees came the crackling fire of rifles. No one could be in doubt now.
"Out with the fires! Scatter them, trample them down!" exclaimed Henry.
He set the example, kicking the wood and embers in every direction. Adam Colfax was not one to resent such a sudden assumption of authority, when he saw that it meant the saving of human lives. He repeated the order and joined in the work himself. Fortunately the fires had burned low and the task was soon done, but not before two or three men had been hit by bullets from the surrounding darkness.
"Lie down, everybody!" cried Henry, and the order was obeyed at once. Then the strange night battle in the heart of the wilderness began. The savages, after their first attack, ceased to shout, and the voyagers on their own part made little noise. But they knew that the assailing force was numerous. It rimmed them on all sides save that of the river, and the little pink and red beads of fire seemed to flash from every bush. The men on the boats swarmed to the shore, but Adam Colfax allowed only half of them to come, the land force at the same time falling back on the river to meet them. He had no mind to let his communications be cut.
As the white line fell back the red came on, and uttered again the long-drawn, high-pitched war whoop, a cry of exultation. But it was not repeated, as the white line withdrew only to the bank, and yielded no more. Then both lines lay in the forest, faces invisible, but the pink and red beads of opposing fire ran back and forth in a stream. Now and then, even in the darkness, a bullet struck true. A groan would start in the white line, but it would be checked at the lips, because these were men too proud to give expression to pain.
"They can't make much progress in this way," said Adam Colfax to Henry, who had crept to his side.
"They can make it terribly wearing by keeping it up all night."
"We can withdraw to the boats entirely and row away."
"I wouldn't do it, they're sure to have boats, too, knowing that we could take to the water, and, if we were to leave here they'd take it as a sign of victory and follow. Then we'd have another and worse fight."
Adam Colfax was of the same opinion. He was not in favor of yielding an inch.
"I think I can see some of their figures dancing about there among the bushes," he whispered to Henry.
"I see them, too," replied the youth, "and I think that I see white men. They must be the desperate gang that followed Alvarez out of New Orleans."
"No doubt of it."
Adam Colfax presently crept down the river bank, but came back in a few minutes.
"Now we'll see something," he whispered to Henry, and what the cautious leader said was quick to come true.
The fire of both sides died for a moment, and then came a heavy crash and a jet of fire from the river; there was a long, shrill scream as a missile curved high over the white line and dropped in the red, where it burst, flinging red-hot pieces of steel in a shower. It was followed instantly by another report, another jet of fire, and another shower of metal in the bushes. The brass twelve-pounders on the boat had opened fire, and with shot after shot they were searching the dark thickets, whence cries of rage now came.
The Americans sent up shouts of triumph and redoubled their rifle fire. Many of the more zealous were eager to creep to the thickets and turn the defensive into the offensive, but the leaders restrained them.
"No use to waste life in any such foolish fashion," said shrewd Adam Colfax. "While we stay under the cannon they won't rush us, but if we follow them into the bushes they'll have an overwhelming advantage."
It began to lighten a little, but the wind blew stronger and very cold for the time of the year. The red line was withdrawn further into the forest, but it continued an intermittent fire, and now and then uttered a challenging war whoop. The cannon every ten minutes sent a shot among them, but whether it did any damage the Americans could not tell. The defenders saved their bullets, firing only when there seemed to be a chance for a hit, and thus the hours dragged their leaden weight slowly by.
A score of the Americans had been wounded by the rifle fire, but in most cases the wounds were slight. Six were dead and they were taken to the boats, where stones were ted to them and they were dropped into the Mississippi to disappear forever. Rovers, adventurers, masterless men, they had been, but they died in a good cause, and they were not without mourners, as their bodies slid into the brown waters.
Adam Colfax had coffee made on several of the boats provided with a cooking apparatus, and it was served in the darkness to those who fought on shore. One man had the tin cup shot from his hand as he was raising it to his lips, but he calmly called for another, and when he had drunk it, went on with his part of the battle.
The hot coffee heartened them wonderfully, and the ten minute cannon shots were good company. They grew to look for them, and so strong is habit, that they knew almost to the second when the shot was due. It was like a slow, steady chorus, cheering them and telling them to hold on.
Far toward morning there was a tremendous burst of fire from the thickets, the fierce, high-pitched war shout was repeated three times, and after that, silence. Then the darkness sank away, and the day came in a burst of red and gold, gilding river and forest.
"They are gone," said Henry, "you'll find now that the woods are empty."
Many of the voyagers rushed into the forest to discover that he spoke the truth. Nowhere was there a sign of an enemy. No tree sheltered a warrior, the thickets were harmless. The peaceful morning breeze had no note of warning in 'its song. But when they looked more closely they saw that many dark stains had soaked into the earth, and they knew that not all the bullets and cannon balls had gone amiss.
"Well, we drove them off that time," said Adam Colfax cheerfully. "They found that they couldn't surprise us, and I guess they've concluded that they couldn't rush us either. I fancy it's the last we'll see of 'em."
Henry shook his head, and Shif'less Sol and Tom Ross, who were standing by, also shook theirs.
"We're pretty sure that a big league of the southern tribes has been formed," Henry said, "and there are also many white men with them, white men who are driven by hate and revenge. They'll stick."
"Then we've got to defend this fleet to the last," said Adam Colfax. "It's bound to get through; and the first thing I'll have done is to cover up our barrels of powder, so no fire or hot bullets can reach it. Those barrels of powder are as precious as gold."
This task was begun at once and everybody reembarked, a joyful little army that had won a triumph and that felt able to win more if need be. The wounded made light of their wounds and all felt new strength and courage with the daylight. The five returned with the others to their boats.
"Well, Jim," said Paul to Long Jim Hart, "there's trouble to be found away from New Orleans as well as in it. Last night was not so very peaceful, and the woods did contain danger."
Long Jim heaved a satisfied sigh.
"Yes, Paul," he replied, "thar wuz shorely a heap uv danger stirrin' 'bout last night, an' thar wuz lots uv chances that some uv it would come knockin' up ag'inst me, but, Paul, I knowed it wuz thar, I knowed it wuz in the woods in front uv us; it wuzn't settin' by my side, talkin' soft things to me, an' sayin' it wuz my friend. No, Paul, ef I had got killed last night I would hey knowed, ef I knowed anythin' at all, that it wuz an honest Injun bullet that done it, one that meant to do it, an' no foolin'."
The fleet resumed its passage up the river in its usual arrow formation, with the five near the tip of the barb, but the bright promise of the morning was deceitful. Toward noon the clouds of the night before that had not retreated far, came back again, filing solemnly across the sky in a long, somber procession. No air stirred. The wide, yellow river stretched before them, a smooth, molten surface.
The motion of the fleet became perceptibly slower. The men in that turgid atmosphere felt languid and inert, and their hands rested but lightly on oar and paddle. Cheerfulness gave way to depression. The voyage was far less easy than it had seemed a few hours before. Overhead the clouds united and drew a leaden blanket from horizon to horizon.
"It's a storm, of course," said Henry. " Remember the one that struck us when we were coming down the river. It's just such another."
There was a sudden rush of hot air. Dull thunder, singularly uncanny in its low, distant note, began to grumble. Lightning of an intense coppery color flashed again and again across the heavens. The river began to rise in yellow waves that crumbled and rose again.
Some of the boats had sails, but these were quickly taken in - Adam Colfax was no careless seaman. The fleet, nevertheless, began to heave on the troubled water, break its formation, and fall into imminent danger of frequent collision. The great river, usually so friendly, and, like a long cord, uniting the green lands on either side, was now full of wrath and fury. Burst after burst of wind, screaming ominously, swept over it, and the waves rolled like those of the sea. Despite powerful hands on oar and paddle, the fleet was driven about like a covey of frightened birds. Meanwhile, the darkness increased until it was almost like night.
Adam Colfax struggled hard. He wished to keep to the middle of the river, and a single boat might have fought out the storm there, but the danger was steadily increasing. Two boats, already, were in collision, and with great difficulty were saved from sinking.
"We'll have to make for the shore and tie up," he shouted to Henry, who was in the boat next to him. "I think it's the most violent storm I ever saw on the Mississippi."
"We may find a sheltered place," Henry shouted back above the roar of the wind.
"There's nothing else to do," said Adam Colfax. "The eastern shore looks the lower, and we'll go for it at once."
He gave the signal with hand and voice, and all the boats began to pull with their whole strength in a diagonal course toward the east bank, while the wind shrieked in gust after gust, the thunder crashed incessantly, and the coppery lightning flared in great saber-cuts across the sky.
It was enough to daunt the heart of many a brave man, but Henry Ware was not appalled. His primeval instincts had risen to the surface again. He saw the grandeur of it rather than the weirdness and danger. Like Long Jim, though less outspoken, he had been troubled by the intrigue, the shiftiness and the false seeming of New Orleans, and now his spirit replied to the battle of the elements. He was the most active man in the fleet. His quick hand and eye and powerful arm kept one canoe loaded with medical stores, which had in them the saving of many lives, from going to the bottom. The harder the wind blew and the rougher the waves grew the higher his spirit rose to meet them.
"Look!" he shouted to Adam Colfax, as they approached the shore, "an opening! See it? I think it's a bayou, and if we go up that we'll be safe!"
Henry was right. Its mouth almost hidden by trees, the deep, still bayou opened out before them, and ran its narrow length far back into the land. One could not conceive a better anchorage for the small boats such as constituted their fleet. The men, when they saw it, gave a hearty cheer that rose above the wind. Hardy as they were, fear had entered most of them.
The leading boats passed into the bayou, and all the others, many struggling hard with wind, current, and waves, followed them. The change was immediate. They came into quarters comparatively still, but there was a new danger. A tree, snapped through its mighty trunk by the hurricane, fell across the bayou directly in front of them. It was lucky that no canoe was in its way.
"Out, men, with axes!" shouted Adam Colfax, and a dozen leaped to obey his command. The tree was quickly cut apart and a score more dragged the two halves up to the banks, leaving a passage once more for the fleet. This was repeated further on, and now they began to look anxiously for more open country. Only good fortune had saved them so far.
The bayou ran on narrow and deep, and they pulled and paddled with all their might, until at last they came to a place that was fringed only by high bushes. The forest on either side was two or three hundred yards away, and Adam Colfax, despite his stern New Hampshire nature, did not repress a cry of joy. Here they were safe, alike from the Mississippi and the forest.
"Tie up!" he shouted, and the boats were soon fastened to the bushes in parallel rows on either side of the bayou. Then they hurried to make shelter for themselves. The supplies were already covered. The skies were now at the darkest, a solid circle of heavy black clouds. The lightning and thunder alike ceased, and then, borne on the swift wind, came a mighty rain. It was so heavy, so steady, and so searching that they were put to their utmost labor and ingenuity to keep their precious cargo dry.
"If the rain were not so tremendously heavy I would look through the forest to see if any enemies were about," said Henry to the leader.
Adam Colfax glanced up at the water which was falling in sheets and laughed, a laugh of genuine relief from a great strain.
"Why, Henry," he said, "I don't believe that a man could keep his feet out there in all that pelting flood long enough to go many miles. I wish I was always as safe from attack as I feel now."
It was certainly far more comfortable in the boats than it could possibly be in the sodden forest, where little lakes were already forming. In addition, night, very dark, was coming on, and no cessation of the rain was promised. It was useless, in the face of the deluge, to attempt to build fires on the shore, and huddling in the boats under tarpaulins, sails, and blankets, they ate cold food. But Adam Colfax, as a precaution, allowed a little brandy to be served to every man.
"It's medicine in this case, boys," he said, "and you must look on it so. I don't think you'll get any more."
Bye and bye the rain slackened a little. Some one began a line of a song, but it did not catch. Nobody joined in, and the singer stopped. The atmosphere was not favorable to any kind of music. The hours passed slowly, but it was nearly midnight when the rain ceased, and a timid moon came out to cast a few pale rays over a soaked and dripping forest. Most of the men were now asleep under their covers, but not one of the five slumbered, nor did Adam Colfax and a dozen others.
"Thank God, it's stopped at last!" said Adam Colfax devoutly - he was a religious man, and his gratitude was not merely oral. "The clouds are clearing away and I think we can soon see where we are."
"Yes, it will be much lighter soon," said Henry Ware, "but in the meantime we are about to receive a visitor. Look!"
He pointed down the bayou toward the river. A light canoe was emerging from the mists and shadows. It contained a single occupant, and came straight on up the narrow channel.
The man who sat in the canoe was tall and thin and wrapped in a dripping black robe. His head was bare and his gray hair fell in long, straight locks. The moonlight fell directly upon his thin, ascetic face, and something in the eyes that Adam Colfax saw, or thought he saw, sent a thrill through him.
"Is it a ghost?" he asked of Henry Ware in an awed whisper.
At that moment the moonlight shifted and fell upon something metallic that gleamed upon the breast of the mystic visitor.
"It is Father Montigny," said Henry. He, too, felt awe, not at any ghostly apparition but because the priest had come suddenly at such a time.
"What does it portend?" was his silent thought.
Paddling with a strong hand the priest came straight toward them. The moonlight continued to shine upon his face, and Henry thought that he read there the impulse of a great mission.