The Free Rangers by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XX. The Battle of the Bayou
The priest came directly to the boat, in which Henry Ware and Adam Colfax were sitting - the remainder of the five were in the next boat - and held up his hand as a sign of recognition and relief.
"Father Montigny!" said Henry.
"Yes, my son, it is I, and I give thanks to Heaven that I have found you in time."
"What is it, father?" It seemed natural that at this moment Henry should be the spokesman for the fleet.
"A great danger has closed upon you and all here."
"Yes, he is the master spirit, but back of him are the allied tribes of the south, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, even Osages from the west, and others, and in addition there are two hundred desperate white men drawn from all nations. Alvarez has promised to lead them to great spoil and plunder.
"He is the buccaneer chief now and they will follow him. At night-fall they surprised a French trading schooner tied to the shore for safety, slaughtered all those on board, and have now drawn the schooner across the mouth of the bayou to shut you in. The vessel also carries four bronze nine pounders which they will use against you. Outside in the Mississippi is a great fleet of Indian war-canoes which has been above you in the stream."
Adam Colfax paled a little.
"It seems," he said, "that when we thought we were pulling to safety we were merely entering a trap."
"It was a trap," said Henry with energy, "but we're strong enough to break any trap into which we may fall."
"That's so," said Adam Colfax.
"You may ask me how I knew all this," continued the priest. "I tell you not what I have heard, but what I have seen. I was with the Choctaws, and I sought to dissuade them from this campaign upon which they were marching. I told them that Alvarez was mad with ambition and disappointment, that he had rebelled against lawful authority, that he was an outlaw and buccaneer, and that he could not keep his promises. My words availed nothing. I continued with them, hoping still to dissuade them and the other bands that met them, but still I failed.
"I was yet with the tribe when they met Alvarez and the wicked renegade, the one Wyatt, and their men. Alvarez would have used force, he would have driven me from the camp with heavy blows; even this, the white man who has inherited Holy Church would have done, but the red men, born savages, would not let him. Although they would not listen to me they let me stay, unharmed. I witnessed, or rather heard, their attack upon you last night, and their repulse has made them only the more eager for your destruction. It has also united them the more firmly."
"When do you think they will attack us, Father Montigny?" asked Henry.
"That I cannot tell. I heard their plans, and I deemed it my duty to warn you. A guard, one whom I have converted to our faith, let me slip away and here I am."
"And our debt to you is still growing," said Henry. "As for myself, I think the attack will come to-night, when they deem us disorganized and beaten down by the storm."
"And so do I," said Adam Colfax. "We have no time to waste."
"May God preserve you," said the priest. "I have no desire to witness scenes of slaughter but I trust, for the sake of yourselves, for the sake of Bernardo Galvez, the good Governor General of Louisiana, and for the welfare of this region, that you may beat them off. But the contest will be fierce and bloody."
A young man, at the order of Adam Colfax, sounded a trumpet, a low thrilling call that aroused the men from their brief sleep, and the word was quickly passed that they were blockaded in the bayou, and that the hordes were advancing to a new attack. They grumbled less now than at the storm.
Here was a danger that they knew how to meet. Battle had been a part of all their lives, and they did not fear it.
The moonlight increased, the forest was dripping, but there was a noise now of bullet clinking against bullet, of the ramrod sent home in the rifle barrel, and of men talking low.
Adam Colfax called a conference in his boat. His best lieutenants and the five were present. Should they await the attack or advance to meet it? In any event, the fleet must escape from the bayou, and the nearer they were to the river when the battle occurred the better it would be for them.
"Ef we know thar's a danger," said Tom Ross, "the best thing fur us to do is to go to it, an' lay hold uv it."
The vote on Tom's suggestion was unanimous in its favor, and the fleet once more began to move. A small force of riflemen marched on either bank in order to uncover possible skirmishers.
The advance was very slow and in silence save for the dip of the oars and the paddles. The moonlight grew stronger and stronger, and they could now see a good distance on the deep, still bayou. The five had remained in the leading boats and they watched closely for sight or sound of the hostile force, but as yet eye and ear told nothing. The trees now grew close to the water's edge and, looped heavily with trailing vines, they presented a black wall on either side. But they had no fear of shots from such a source, as they knew that the trusty riflemen going in advance would clear out any skirmishers who might have hidden themselves there.
Paul was beside Henry. Near him was Long Jim and in the boat next to them was Shif'less Sol and Tom Ross. At this moment, which they felt to be heavy with import, it was good to be together. Paul in particular, Paul, the impressionable and imaginative, looked around at the familiar figures in the clearing moonlight, and drew strength and comfort from their near presence.
The dark fleet moved slowly on, cutting the deep still waters of the bayou with almost noiseless keel. The men had ceased whispering. Now and then an oar splashed or the water gave back the echo of a paddle's dip, but little else was heard. All looked straight ahead.
Suddenly they saw in the middle of the bayou, about a hundred yards before them, a small, black shape, so low that it seemed to blend with the water. It was an Indian canoe, the first outpost of the savage force, and its occupant, promptly firing a rifle, raised a long, warning shout. In an instant the woods on either side began to crackle with rifle-fire. Skirmishers had met skirmishers, and the battle of the bayou had begun.
"Press on! Press on! We must cut through somehow!" cried Adam Colfax, and the American fleet moved steadily and unfalteringly on toward its goal. They came now to the narrowest part of the bayou, and stretched across it they saw a dark line of canoes, all crowded with Indians and the desperadoes of Alvarez. Behind them heeved up the dark bulk of the captured schooner.
The battle blazed in an instant into volume and fury. Two lines of fire facing each other were formed across the bayou, one bent upon pushing forward, the other bent upon holding it back. These lines, moreover, stretched far into the woods on either bank, where sharpshooters lay, and both sides shouted at intervals as the blood in their veins grew hot.
The dark hulk of the schooner suddenly burst into spots of flame, and the woods and waters echoed with heavy reports. The captured five pounders were now helping to block the passage but the brass twelve pounders on the supply fleet replied. Steadily the fire of both sides grew in volume and the lines came closer and closer together.
The moonlight faded again and little clouds of smoke began to rise. These clouds gradually grew bigger, then united into one heavy opaque mass that hung over the combatants. Strips of vapor were detached from it and floated off into the forest. A sharp, pungent odor, the smell of burnt gunpowder, filled the nostrils of the men and added to the fire that burned in their veins.
This, the largest battle yet fought the southern woods, had a somber and unreal aspect to Paul. All around them now was the encircling darkness. Only the area in which the battle was fought showed any light, but here the flashes of the firing were continuous and intense. The crash of the rifles never ceased. Now and then it rose to greater volume and then fell again, but rising or falling it always went on, while over it boomed the big guns answering one another in defiant notes of thunder.
The schooner was the most formidable obstacle to the passage. It lay full length across the narrow bayou and, even if the boats of the supply fleet should reach it, there was little room to pass on either side. From its decks the nine pounders were fired fast and often with precision, and the majority of the Spaniard's desperate band found shelter there also, firing with rifles, muskets, and pistols. Others sent bullets, also, from the comparative security, of port holes. The possession of the schooner gave them a great advantage and they did not neglect it. Now and then they sent up fierce yells, the war-cries of the West Indian pirates, and their Indian allies answered them with their own long-drawn, high pitched whoop, so full of ferocity and menace. Both looked forward to nothing less than complete triumph.
The space between the combatants was lighted up by the incessant flash of the firing. Little jets of water where a missent bullet struck were continually spouting up, and then would come a bigger one when a cannon ball plunged into the depths of the bayou.
Paul suddenly heard a heavy impact, a crash, as of ripping wood, and a cry. A canoe near them had been struck by a cannon ball, and practically broken in half. It sank in an instant, and one of the men in it, wounded in the arm, and crippled, was sinking a second time, when Paul sprang into the water and helped him into their own boat. But not all the wounded were so fortunate. Some sank to stay, and the dark night battle, far more deadly than that of the night before, reeled to and fro.
The combat at first had been more of a spectacle than anything else to Paul. The extraordinary play of light and darkness, the innumerable shadows and flashes on the surface of the bayou, the black tracery of the forest on either bank, the red beads of flame from the rifle fire appearing and re-appearing, made of it all a vast panorama for him. There were the sounds, too, the piratical shout, hoarse and menacing, the Indian whoop, shriller and with more of the wild beast's whine in it, the fierce, sharp note of the rifle fire, steady, insistent, and full of threat, and over it the heavy thudding of the great guns.
It was Paul's eye and ear at first that received the deep impression, but now the aspect of a panorama passed away and his soul was stirred with a fierce desire to get on, to cut through the hostile line, to crush down the opposition, and to reach the full freedom of the wide river. He began to hate those men who opposed them, the fire of passion that battle breeds was surely mounting to his head. Unconsciously, Paul, the scholar and coming statesman, the grave quiet youth, began to shout and to hurl invectives at those who presumed to hold them back. The barrel of his rifle grew hot in his hand with constant loading and firing, but 'he did not notice it. He still, at imminent risk to himself, sent his bullets toward the dark line of Indian canoes and the flashing hulk of the ship behind them.
The supply fleet was beginning to suffer severely. A number of boats and canoes had been sunk and nearly a score of men had been killed. Many more were wounded and, despite all this loss, they had made no progress. The fire from the bank, moreover, was beginning to sting them and to stop it Adam Colfax landed more men. The increased force of the Americans on the shore served the purpose but they were still unable to force the mouth of the bayou. The schooner seemed to be fixed there and she never ceased to send a storm of bullets and cannon balls at them.
Adam Colfax had a slight wound in the arm, but his slow cold blood was now at the boiling point.
"We've got to force that schooner!" he cried. "We've got to take her, if it has to be done with boarders! We can never get by unless we do it!"
But the loss of life even if the attempt were a success, would be terrible. That was apparent to everybody and Henry made a suggestion.
"Let's concentrate our whole fire upon the ship," he said. "Mass the cannon and the rest of us will back them up with our rifles. Maybe we can silence her, and if we do then's the time to take her by storm."
The supply fleet drew back and its fire died. It seemed, in truth, as if it were beaten and that, hemmed in by fire, as it were in the narrow bayou, it must surrender. A tremendous shout of triumph burst forth from the men on the schooner, and the Indians took it up in a vast and shriller but more terrible chorus.
Then came one of those sudden and ominous silences that sometimes occur in a battle. The fire of the Americans ceasing, that of their enemies ceased for the moment also. But the pause was more deadly and menacing in its stillness than all the thunder and shouting of the combat had been. It seemed unnatural to hear again the sighing of the wind through the forest and the quiet lap of water against the shore. The bank of smoke, no longer increased from below, lifted, thinned, broke up into patches, and began to float away. The moon's rays shot through the mists and vapors once more, and lighted up the watery battlefield of the night, the schooner, the desperate men on it, the swarms of canoes, the coppery, high-cheeked faces of the Indians, the supply fleet packed now in a rather close mass, the tanned faces of the men on board it, animated by the high spirit of daring and enterprise, the wounded lying silent in the boats, and the wreckage floating on the bayou.
But the stillness endured for only a few moments. It was broken by the American fleet, which seemed to draw itself together into closer and more compact form. An order in a low tone, but sharp and precise, was carried from boat to boat, and it seemed to strengthen the men anew, heart and body. They straightened up, signs of exhaustion passed from their faces, and every one made ready all the arms that he had.
Paul, like the others, had felt the sudden silence, but perhaps most acutely of all. His whole imaginative temperament was on fire. He knew - he would have known, even had he not heard - that the sudden cessation of the firing was merely preliminary, a fresh drawing of the breath as it were for another and supreme effort. He clasped his hands to his temples, where the pulses were beating rapidly and heavily, and his face burned as if in a fever. But it was a fever of the mind not of the body.
"It's a big battle, Paul," said Shif'less Sol, who had come with Tom Ross into their boat, "but it's wuth it. The arms and other things that we carry in these boats may be wuth millions an' millions to the people who come after us."
"Do you think we'll ever break through, Sol?" asked Paul.
"Shorely," replied the shiftless one. "Henry's got the plan, and we're goin' to cut through like a wedge druv through a log. Something's got to give. Up, Paul, with your gun! Here she goes ag'in!"
The battle suddenly burst forth afresh and with greater violence. All the American twelve pounders were now in a row at the head of the fleet, and one after another, from right to left and then from left to right and over and over again, they began to fire with tremendous rapidity and accuracy at the schooner. All the best gunners were around the twelve pounders. If one fell, another took his place. Many of them were stripped to the waist, and their own fire lighted up their tan faces and their brown sinewy arms as they handled rammer and cannon shot.
The fire of the cannon was supported by that of scores and scores of rifles, and the enemy replied with furious energy. But the supply fleet was animated now by a single purpose. The shiftless one's simile of a wedge driven into a log was true. No attention was paid to anybody in the hostile boats and canoes. They could fire unheeded. Every American cannon and rifle sent its load straight at the schooner. All the upper works of the vessel were shot away. The men of Alvarez could not live upon its decks; they were even slain at the port holes by the terrific rifle fire; cannon shot, grape shot, and rifle bullets searched every nook and corner of the vessel, and her desperate crew, one by one, began to leap into the water and make for the shores.
A shout of exultation rose from the supply fleet, which was now slowly moving forward. Flames suddenly burst from the schooner and ran up the stumps of her masts and spars, reaching out long arms and laying hold at new points. The cannon shots had also reached the inside of the ship as fire began to spout from the port holes, and there was steady stream of men leaping from the schooner into the water of the bayou and making for the land.
The American shout of exultation was repeated, and the forest gave back the echo. The Indians answered it with a fierce yell of defiance, and the forest gave back that, too.
But Adam Colfax had been watching shrewdly.
In his daring life he had been in more than one naval battle, and when he saw the schooner wrapped and re-wrapped in great coils and ribbons of flame he knew what was due. Suddenly he shouted in a voice that could be heard above the roar of the battle: "Back! Back, all! Back for your lives!"
It reached the ears of everybody in the American fleet, and whether he understood its words or not every man understood its tone. There was an involuntary movement common to all. The fleet stopped its slow advance, seemed to sway in another direction, and then to sit still on the water. But all were looking at the schooner with an intense, fascinated, yet horrified gaze.
Nobody was left on the deck of the vessel but the dead. The huge, intertwining coil of fiery ribbons seemed suddenly to unite in one great glowing mass, out of which flames shot high, sputtering and crackling. Then came an awful moment of silence, the vessel trembled, leaped from the water, turned into a volcano of fire and with a tremendous crash blew up.
The report was so great that it came rolling back in echo after echo, but for a few moments there was no other sound save the echo. Then followed a rain of burning wood, many pieces falling in the supply fleet, burning and scorching, while others fell hissing in the forest on either shore. Darkness, too, came over land and water. All the firing had ceased as if by preconcerted signal, though the combatants on either side were awed by the fate of the vessel. The smoke bank came back, too, thicker and heavier than before, and the air was filled with the strong, pungent odor of burnt gunpowder.
But the schooner that had blocked the mouth of the bayou was gone forever and the way lay open before them. Adam Colfax recovered from the shock of the explosion.
"On, men! On!" he roared, and the whole fleet, animated by a single impulse, sprang forward toward the mouth of bayou, the cannon blazing anew the path, the gunners loading and firing, as fast as they could. But the simile of the shiftless one had come true. The wedge, driven by tremendous strokes, had cleft the log.
The Indian fleet, many of the boats containing white men, too, closed in and sought to bar the way, but they were daunted somewhat by their great disaster, and in an instant the American fleet was upon them cutting a path through to the free river. Boat often smashed into boat and the weaker, or the one with less impulse, went down. Now and then white and red reached over and grasped each other in deadly struggle, but, whatever happened, the supply, fleet moved steadily on.
It was to Paul a confused combat, a wild and terrible struggle, the climax of the night-battle. White and red faces mingled before him in a blur, the water seemed to flow in narrow, black streams between the boats and the pall of smoke was ever growing thicker. It hung over them, black and charged now with gases. Paul coughed violently, but he was not conscious of it. He fired his rifle until it was too hot to hold. Then he laid it down, and seizing an oar pulled with the energy of fever.
When the boats containing the cannon were through and into the river, they faced about and began firing over the heads of the others into the huddled mass of the enemy behind. But it was only for a minute or two. Then the last of the supply fleet; that is, the last afloat, came through, and the gap that they had made was closed up at once by the enemy, who still hung on their rear and who were yet shouting and firing.
The Americans gave a great cheer, deep and full throated, but they did not pause in their great effort. Boats swung off toward either bank of the, bayou's mouth. The skirmishers in the bushes who had done such useful work must be taken on board. Theirs was now the most dangerous position of all, pursued as they certainly would be by the horde of Indians and outlaws, bent upon revenge.
The boat containing the five was among those that touched the northern side of the bayou's mouth, and everyone of them, rifle in hand, instantly sprang ashore.