The Free Rangers by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter VII. The Lone Voyager
Henry Ware awoke, rubbed his eyes, and looked through the tree trunks at the Mississippi, now wider than ever.
"What do you see, Tom?" he asked of Tom Ross, who had kept the watch.
"Nothin' but a black speck fur across thar. It come into sight only a minute ago. Fust I thought it wuz a shadder, then I thought it wuz a floatin' log, an' now I do believe it's a canoe. What do you make uv it, Henry?"
Henry looked long.
"It is a canoe," said he at last, "and there's a man in it. They're floating with the stream down our way."
"You're right," said Tom Ross, "an' ef I ain't mistook that man an that canoe are in trouble. Half the time he's paddlin', half the time he's bailin' her out, an' all the time he's making a desperate effort to git to land."
The others were now up and awake, and they gazed with intense interest.
"It's a white man in the canoe ez shore ez I'm a livin' sinner!" exclaimed Shif'less Sol.
"And it's a question," added Henry, "whether his canoe gets to the bank or the bottom of the river first."
"It's a white man and we must save him!" cried Paul, his generous boy's heart stirred to the utmost.
They quickly untied their boat and pulled with great strokes toward the sinking canoe and its lone occupant. They were alongside in a few minutes and Henry threw a rope to the man, who caught it with a skillful hand, and tied his frail craft stoutly to the side of the strong "Galleon." Then, as Paul reached a friendly hand down to him he sprang on board, exclaiming at the same time in a deep voice: "May the blessing of Heaven rest upon you, my children."
The five were startled at the face and appearance of the man who came upon their boat. They had never thought of encountering such a figure in the wilderness. He was of middle age, tall, well-built, and remarkably straight, but his shaven face was thin and ascetic, and the look in his eyes was one of extraordinary benevolence. Moreover, it had the peculiar quality of seeming to gaze far into the future, at it were, at something glorious and beautiful. His dress was a strange mixture. He wore deerskin leggins and moccasins, but his body was clothed in a long, loose garment of black cloth and on his head was a square cap of black felt. A small white crucifix suspended by a thin chain from his neck lay upon his breast and gleamed upon the black cloth.
Every one of the five instantly felt veneration and respect for the stranger and Paul murmured, "A priest." The others heard him and understood. They were all Protestants, but in the deep wilderness religious hatred and jealousy had little hold; upon them none at all.
"Bless you, my sons," repeated the man in his deep, benevolent voice, and then he continued in a lighter tone, speaking almost perfect English, "I do believe that if you had not appeared when you did I and my canoe should have both gone to the bottom of this very deep river. I am a fair swimmer, but I doubt if I could have gained the land."
"We are glad, father," said Paul respectfully, "that we had the privilege to be present and help at such a time."
The priest looked at Paul and smiled. He liked his refined and sensitive face and his correct language and accent.
"I should fancy, my young friend," he said, still smiling, "that the debt of gratitude is wholly mine. I am Pierre Montigny, and, as you perhaps surmise, a Frenchman and priest of the Holy Church, sent to the New World to convert and save the heathen. I belong to the mission at New Orleans, but I have been on a trip, to a tribe called the Osage, west of the Great River. Last night my canoe was damaged by the fierce storm and I started forth rather rashly this morning, not realizing the extent to which the canoe had suffered. You have seen and taken a part in the rest."
"You were going back to New Orleans alone, and in a little canoe?" said Paul.
"Oh, yes," replied Father Montigny, as if he were speaking of trifles. "I always go alone, and my canoe isn't so very little, as you see. I carry in it a change of clothing, provisions, and gifts for the Indians."
"But no arms," said Henry who had been looking into the canoe.
"No arms, of course," replied Father Montigny.
"You are a brave man! About the bravest I ever saw!" burst out Tom Ross, he of few words.
Father Montigny merely smiled again.
"Oh, no," he said, "I have many brethren who do likewise, and there are as many different kinds of bravery as there are different kinds of life. You, I fancy, are brave, too, though I take it from appearances that you sometimes fight with arms."
"We have to do it, Father Montigny," said Paul in an apologetic tone.
The priest made no further comment and, taking him to the shore, with much difficulty they built a fire, at which they prepared him warm food while he dried his clothing. They had no hesitation in telling him of their errand and of the presence of Alvarez and his force on the river. Father Montigny sighed.
"It is a matter of great regret," he said, "that Louisiana has passed from the hands of my nation into those of Spain. France is now allied with your colonies, but Spain holds aloof. She fears you and perhaps with reason. Every country, if its people be healthy and vigorous, must ultimately be owned by those who live upon it."
"Do you know this Alvarez?" asked Henry.
"Yes, a man of imperious and violent temper, one who, with all his courage, does not recognize the new forces at work in the world. He thinks that Spain is still the greatest of nations, and that the outposts of your race, who have reached the backwoods, are nothing. It is we who travel in the great forests who recognize the strength of the plant that is yet so young and tender."
The priest sighed again and a shade of emotion passed over his singularly fine face.
"Alvarez would be glad to commit the Spanish forces in America to the cause of your enemies," he resumed, "and he is bold enough to do any violent deed at this distance to achieve that end. In fact, he is already allied with the renegade and the Indians against you and began war when he seized one of you. Perhaps it is just as well that you are going to New Orleans, since Bernardo Galvez, the Spanish Governor, is a man of different temper, young, enthusiastic, and ready, I think, to listen to you."
While the priest was talking by the fireside Shif'less Sol, Long Jim, and Tom Ross slipped away. They hauled his canoe out on dry land, and with the tools that they had found on "The Galleon" quickly made it as good as ever. They also quietly put some of their own stores in the canoe, and then returned it to the water.
"0' course, he won't go comf'tably with us in our boat to New Or-lee-yuns," said Shif'less Sol. "He'll stick to his canoe an' stop to preach to Injuns who mebbe will torture him to death, but he has my respeck an' ef I kin do anything fur him I want to do it."
"So would I," said Jim Hart heartily. "I'm a pow'ful good cook ez you know, Sol, bein' ez you've et in your time more'n a hundred thousand pounds uv my victuals, an' I'd like to cook him all the buffaler an' deer steak he could eat between here an' New Or-lee-yuns, no matter how long he wuz on the way."
"An' me," said Tom Ross simply, wishing to add his mite, "I'd like to be on hand when any Injun tried to hurt him. That Injun would think he'd been struck by seven different kinds uv lightnin', all at the same time."
The fire was built on a hillock that rose above the flood. It had been kindled with the greatest difficulty, even by such experienced woodsmen as the five, but, once well started, it consumed the damp brush and spluttered and blazed merrily. Gradually a great bed of coals formed and threw out a temperate, grateful heat. All were glad enough, after the storm and the cold and the wet, to sit around it end to feel the glow upon their faces. It warmed the blood.
The hill formed an island in the flood and "The Galleon" and the canoe were tied to trees only thirty or forty feet away. Far to the west extended the great sweep of the river and around them the flooded forest was still dripping with the night's rain.
"I think I'm willin' to rest a while," said Shif'less Sol. "That wuz a pow'ful lively time we had last night, but thar wuz enough o' it an' I'd like to lay by to-day, now that our friend's canoe hez been fixed."
Father Montigny glanced up in surprise.
"My canoe repaired!" he said. "I don't understand."
"'Twas only a little job fur fellers like us," said the shiftless one." She's all done, an' your canoe, ez good ez new, is tied up thar alongside o' our 'Gall-yun.'"
"You are very good to me," said the priest raising his hands slightly in the manner of benediction, "and I suggest, since we have a comfortable place here, that we remain on this little island until tomorrow. Do you know what day it is?"
"No," replied Paul, "to tell you the truth, Father Montigny, we've been through so much and we've had to think so hard of other things that we've lost count of the days. I'd scarcely know how to guess at it."
"It's the Holy Sabbath," said Father Montigny. "You, I have no doubt, belong to a church other than mine, but the wilderness teaches us that we're merely traveling by different roads to the same place. We six are alone upon this little spot of ground in a great river flowing through a vast desolation. Surely we can be comrades, too, and give thanks together for the mercy that is taking us through such great dangers and hardships."
"We're like Noah and his family after the ark landed," whispered Shif'less Sol to Henry, in a tone that was far from irreverence. But Paul said aloud:
"I'm sure that we're all in agreement upon that point, Father Montigny. We do not have to hasten and we'll remain here on the island in a manner proper to the day."
Father Montigny glanced at the five in turn and the rare, beautiful smile lighted up his face. He read every thought of theirs in their open countenances, and he knew that they were in thorough accord with him. But Paul, as usual, appealed to him most of all - the deeply spiritual quality in the lad was evident to the priest and reader of men.
Father Montigny took a little leather-bound book from under his black robe and stood up. The others stood up also. Then the priest read a prayer. It was in Latin and the five - Paul included - did not understand a word of it, but not a particle of its solemnity and effect was lost on that account.
It was to Paul, in many ways, the most impressive scene in which he had ever taken part, the noble, inspired face of the priest, the solemn words, and no other sound except the peaceful murmur made by the flowing of the great river. They seemed as much alone on their little hill as if they stood on a coral island in the south seas.
Nature was in unison with the rite. A brilliant sun came out, the dripping trees dried fast, and, under the blue sky, the yellow of the river took on a lighter hue.
After the prayer they resumed their seats by the fire, which they left at intervals only to get something from the boat or to bring the dryest wood that they could find for the replenishing of the fire. Paul and Shif'less Sol went together on one of the trips for firewood.
"He is shorely a good man," said the shiftless one nodding in the direction of the priest, "but don't you think, Paul, he's undertook a mighty big job, tryin' to convert Injuns?"
"Undoubtedly," replied Paul, "but that is the purpose to which he has devoted his life. He does good, but it seems a pity to me too, Sol, that he goes on such missions. In the end he'll find martyrdom among some cruel tribe, and he knows it."
While Father Montigny, like others of his kind, expected martyrdom and willingly risked it, his spirits were darkened by no shadow now. Not one of the five was more cheerful than he, and he gave them all the news at his command.
"And I am glad," he continued, "that you are going to New Orleans. You are really messengers of peace and, unofficial heralds though you are, you may save more than one nation from great trouble."
The five were deeply gratified by his words. If they had needed any encouragement in their selfchosen task they would have received it now.
"Since you are returning to New Orleans, Father Montigny," said Paul, "why don't you go with us in our big boat? It is far safer and more comfortable than a canoe."
Father Montigny shook his head.
"It is a kind offer," he replied, "but I cannot accept it. I leave you to-morrow at the mouth of a river on our right as we descend. There is a small village of peaceful Indians several miles up that stream and I wish to stay with them a day or two. I and my canoe have traveled many thousands of miles together and we will continue."
They would have repeated the offer, but they saw that he was not to be moved and they talked of other things. The rest was, in truth, welcome to all, as the labors and dangers of the night had been a severe strain upon their nerves and strength, and they luxuriated before the fire while the peaceful day passed. Henry noticed that the water was still rising, and that the mass of floating debris was also increasing.
"It's been a tremendous rain," he said, "and it's extended far up. It must have been raining on all the great rivers that run into the Mississippi on either side, away off there in the north. It's going to be a mighty big flood, and this hill itself will go under."
"You're right," said Shif'less Sol. "It's a mighty big river any time but is shorely gittin' to be like a sea now."
They walked back to the little party by the fire. The day had considerable coolness in it after the rain, and the warmth was still welcome. Little was left for them to do and they still luxuriated in rest. Like all woodsmen in those times who were compelled to endure long and most strenuous periods of toil and danger, they knew how to do nothing when the time came, and let Nature recuperate the tired faculties.
The brilliant sun shone on the river, the muddy waters were gilded with gold. The east turned to rose, then to red, and after that came the shadows. The mellow voice of the priest was lifted in a solemn Latin hymn. His song carried far over the darkening waters, and Paul, under its influence, felt more deeply than ever the immense majesty of the scene. Red light from the sunken sun still lingered over the longest of rivers, but the shadows now covered all the eastern shore. Through the increasing night the firelight on the little island twinkled like a beacon, but for the time being, they were careless who saw it. The hymn died away in a last long echo, the red light was wholly gone, darkness was over everything, and they prepared for a long night of sleep. The next morning they started together, the big boat and the little canoe. Every one of the five offered to paddle the canoe for Father Montigny as far as they were going together, but he smilingly declined.
"No," he said, "my good canoe and I have been closely associated too long to be separated now, nor must I be spoiled. I see that you have put fresh stores in the canoe, and I accept them. You have good hearts, as I knew when I first saw you."
The five would not put up their sail while they were in company, and "The Galleon" and the canoe drifted together until they reached the mouth of the river up which the peaceful Indian village lay. There Father Montigny gave them his blessing and bade them farewell. They held their own boat in the current while they watched him paddle with strong arms up the tributary stream. He stopped at the first curve, lifted his paddle in a last salute, which they returned with their own lifted oars, and then he passed out of sight.
"We may never see him again," said Paul - but Paul could not read the future.
Then they set their sail, swung into the middle of the stream and swept forward on their great journey. But the meeting with the priest had a strong influence upon every one of them.
"He is sure to suffer a violent death some time or other," said Paul, "and he knows it, but it never makes him gloomy. There are other French priests like him, too, boys, going thousands of miles, alone and unarmed, over this vast continent."
"'Pears to me that we are wrong when we talk about the French bein' dancin' masters an' sech like," said Shif'less Sol. "My father fit in the great French war up thar along the Canady line an' in Canady, an' he says the French wuz ez good fighters ez anybody. Besides, they took naterally to the woods, makin' fust rate scouts an' hunters, an' ef that ain't proof o' the stuff that's in people, nothin' is."
This day upon the waters was one of unbroken peace. The flood, as Henry had predicted, continued to rise, spreading far into the woods and out of sight. Now and then some portion of the shore, eaten into continually by the powerful stream, would give way and fall with a sticky sigh into the river. Uprooted trees floated in the current or became wedged in the forest. But the sunlight remained undimmed and they began to grow familiar with the river. It was a friend now, bearing them whither they would go.
About noon they saw two deer marooned on an island made by the flood, and they shot one of them for the sake of the fresh meat.
Now ensued a long journey, unbroken by danger, but full of interest. They came near enough once or twice to ascertain that the Spanish force was just ahead of them, but they saw no chance to secure the precious maps and plans or interfere in any other way with the dangerous project of Alvarez, and they waited patiently.
The flood began to subside, but it was a mighty river yet, and would still be so when all the flood was gone. They passed the mouths of great rivers to right and to left, but they did not know their names, nor whence they came. The air grew much warmer and they were very glad indeed now that they had the sail, which, allied with the current, carried them on as fast as they wished.
Shif'less Sol lay lazily under the sail, his limbs relaxed, and his face a picture of content.
"I could float on an' on forever," he said sleepily, "an' I don't care how long it takes to git to New Or-lee-yuns. I think I'm goin' to like that place. I saw a trapper once who had been thar, an' he said you could be jest ez lazy an' sleepy ez you wished an' nobody would blame you - they kinder look upon it ez the right thing, an' that suits me. He said them Spaniards an' French had orange trees about. You could lay in your bed, reach a han' out o' the window, pull an orange off the tree, suck it, an' then go back to sleep without ever havin' disturbed the cover. I never seed an orange, but I know it's nice."
The same day they rowed the boat a few miles up a small but deep and very clear river that emptied into the Mississippi from the east. Their object was to fish, the greater river itself being too muddy for the succulent kind that they wished. The incomparable "Galleon" had also been supplied with fishing tackle, and in a short time they caught a splendid supply of black bass and perch, which proved to be very fine and toothsome. As their boat floated back from the smaller stream into the Mississippi, Shif'less Sol heaved a deep sigh.
"What's the matter, Sol?" asked Paul.
"I wuz thinkin' o' Christopher Columbus," replied Shif'less Sol. "Ef it wuzn't that I'd be dead now, I wish I'd been with him. I do enjoy sailin' on an' discoverin' lands an' waters that ain't yet got no name to 'em. It looks funny to me that we wuzn't discovered sooner, when we've always been here, but Columbus has all my respeck an' admiration cause he done it when the others didn't."
"That shorely wuz a man," said Tom Ross, his eyes lighting up. "I've heard the tale how he kep' tryin' an' tryin' to git a ship an' couldn't, an' at last the Spanish lady pulled off her earrings an' finger rings an' bracelets an' said: 'Here, Chris, these, these are my jewels, take 'em, trade 'em fur the best ship thar is in the market, an' discover Ameriky.' An' then he got his ship, an' kep' sailin' on an' on, an' the sailors they began to git skeered an' then more skeered. They're afraid they're goin' to drop off on the other side uv the world an' they go to Chris an' say: 'Thar ain't no sech continent ez Ameriky an' we goin' to discover it. We're goin' to turn right 'round an' go straight back to Spain.'
"Chris says in the knowin'est manner like a father talkin' to his child. 'Thar is sech a continent ez Ameriky, an' it's a big one, too. It's layin' over thar straight to the west, an' it's full uv big lakes an' big rivers an' big mountains an' red Injuns that fight with bows an' arrers, and b'ars an' buffalers an' deer an' panthers an' all things fine, jest waitin' fur us. Thar's whar we're goin'.' And the sailors say more uppish than ever: 'No, we ain't, we ain't goin' to discover Ameriky, thar ain't no sech place, we're goin' right back to Spain.' Then a kinder funny look comes into Chris's eye. He reaches fur his long rifle, an' he draws a bead on the foremost uv them sailors, the feller that speaks fur 'em all, an' he says, droppin' that fatherly manner an' speakin' up sharp an' snappy: 'I reckin we're either goin' to discover Ameriky, or go right back to Spain, which is it?'
"An' that foremost sailor, the one that speaks fur 'em all, sees the funny look in Chris's eye, an' he thinks, too, he kin see clean down the barrel uv that long rifle to whar the bullet is layin', an' he answers right off: 'We're goin' to discover Ameriky'; an' shore enough they did, this fine, big continent, full uv big lakes an' big rivers an' big mountains an' red Injuns that fight with bows an' arrers an' b'ars an' buffalers an' deer an' panthers an' all things fine."
"I didn't know Tom Ross had sech a gift o' gab," said Shif'less Sol. "He stirs me all up, he makes me want to hev some lady buy a ship fur me an' start me out to discoverin' continents. Do you think, Paul, thar's any lady who would sell her earrings an' finger rings fur me ez that Spanish one did fur Columbus?"
"But think, Sol, what a chance you've got whether there is or not," said Henry Ware. "America is discovered but not much of it is explored. There's enough here to keep you roaming about for the next fifty or sixty years."
"That's so," said the shiftless one brightening up. "What am I growlin' about, when here's a river, mebbe ten thousand miles long that we know next to nothin' 'bout, an' buffalers an' b'ars an' panthers an' deer to shoot, an' red Injuns to fight ez long ez I live. After all, we're shorely mighty lucky to live at the time we do, ez I've said before. Do you think thar'll ever be any times hereafter as interestin' ez ourn, Paul?"
"I can't say," replied Paul with a smile, "but they're not likely to be as interesting to us."
They went on their way, and the air became still warmer. Moreover; it grew heavy and oppressive, and the spring rains were resumed with great violence. They had worked meanwhile on their tarpaulin, enlarging and strengthening it with skins which they had allowed to dry on the boat, and they rested, sheltered and secure, as they floated along.
Although Frenchmen had gone up and down the river long before, they felt like genuine explorers. So little was known of the mighty stream that they regarded every stretch and turn with keen interest. It was not beautiful now, a vast, brown flood flowing between low and changing shores, but in its size and loneliness it had a majesty peculiarly its own.
Wild geese and wild ducks flew over the river in abundance, and they were so little used to man that often they passed near "The Galleon." The fowling pieces proved useful again, as the five were able to sit in comfort on their boat and shoot geese and ducks for their needs. Some were of kinds that they had never seen before, but all proved to be good eating, and they were welcome.
Jim Hart also exercised his ingenuity in a very useful manner. In the prow of the boat, but under the tarpaulin, he spread a layer of mud about two inches thick. Protected from the rain, it soon dried, forming a hard, impervious, brick-like covering for the bottom of the boat, and upon this he built a small smothered fire of dry sticks, a supply of which they kept in the boat. Here Jim, with all the skill and delicacy of a gastronomic artist, would cook their wild ducks and wild geese, and, considering the limited area and resources for the exercise of his favorite occupation, he did extremely well. Nor was it any longer necessary for them to run in to the shore and worry in the dripping forest with wet wood.
"It ain't like that stove we built the time we wuz on the ha'nted islan'," Long Jim would say, "but it's a heap sight better than nothin'."
"It shorely is," said Shif'less Sol. "You ain't much account for anything, Jim, but you kin cook a leetle bit."
Long Jim smiled contentedly.