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The Free Rangers: A Story of the Early Days Along the Mississippi

The Free Rangers: A Story of the Early Days Along the Mississippi

Author:Joseph A. Altsheler


The wilderness rolled away to north and to south, and also it rolled away to east and to west, an unbroken sweep of dark, glossy green. Straight up stood the mighty trunks, but the leaves rippled and sang low when a gentle south wind breathed upon them. It was the forest as God made ...
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  The wilderness rolled away to north and to south, and also it rolled awayto east and to west, an unbroken sweep of dark, glossy green. Straight upstood the mighty trunks, but the leaves rippled and sang low when a gentlesouth wind breathed upon them. It was the forest as God made it, themagnificent valley of North America, upon whose edges the white man hadjust begun to nibble.

  A young man, stepping lightly, came into a little glade. He was white, buthe brought with him no alien air. He was in full harmony with the primevalwoods, a part of them, one in whose ears the soft song of the leaves was afamiliar and loved tune. He was lean, but tall, and he walked with awonderful swinging gait that betokened a frame wrought to the strength ofsteel by exercise, wind, weather, and life always in the open. Though hisface was browned by sun and storm his hair was yellow and his eyes blue.He was dressed wholly in deerskin and he carried over his shoulder thelong slender rifle of the border. At his belt swung hatchet and knife.

  There was a touch to the young man that separated him from the ordinarywoods rover. He held himself erect with a certain pride of manner. Thestock of his rifle, an unusually fine piece, was carved in an ornate andbeautiful way. The deerskin of his attire had been tanned with uncommoncare, and his moccasins were sewn thickly with little beads of yellow andblue and red and green. Every piece of clothing was scrupulously clean,and his arms were polished and bright.

  The shiftless one--who so little deserved his name--paused a moment in theglade and, dropping the stock of his rifle to the ground, leaned upon themuzzle. He listened, although he expected to hear nothing save the song ofthe leaves, and that alone he heard. A faint smile passed over the face ofShif'less Sol. He was satisfied. All was happening as he had planned. Thenhe swung the rifle back to his shoulder, and walked to the crest of a hillnear by.

  The summit was bare and the shiftless one saw far. It was a splendidrolling country, covered with forests of oak and elm, beech, hickory andmaple. Here and there faint threads of silver showed where rivers orbrooks flowed, and he drew a long deep breath. The measure of line andverse he knew not, but deep in his being Nature had kindled the true fireof poetry, and now his pleasure was so keen and sharp that a throb ofemotion stirred in his throat. It was a grand country and, if reserved forany one, it must be reserved for his race and his people. Shif'less Solwas resolved upon that purpose and to it he was ready to devote body andlife.

  Yet the wilderness seemed to tell only of peace. The low song of theleaves was soothing and all innocence. The shiftless one was far beyondthe farthest outpost of his kind, beyond the broad yellow current of theMississippi, deep in the heart of the primeval forest. He might travelfull three hundred miles to the eastward and find no white cabin, while towestward his own kind were almost a world away. On all sides stretched thevast maze of forest and river, through which roamed only wild animals andwilder man.

  Shif'less Sol, from his post on the hill, examined the whole circle of theforest long and carefully. He seemed intent upon some unusual object. Itwas shown in the concentration of his look and the thoughtful pucker ofhis forehead. It was not game, because in a glade to windward, at the footof the hill, five buffaloes grazed undisturbed and now and then utteredshort, panting grunts to show their satisfaction. Presently a splendidstag, walking through the woods as if he were sole proprietor, scented thestrange human odor, and threw up his head in alarm. But the figure on thehill, the like of which the deer had never seen before, did not stir ortake notice, and His Lordship the Stag raised his head higher to see. Thefigure still did not stir, and, his alarm dying, the stag walkeddisdainfully away among the trees.

  Birds, the scarlet tanager, the blue bird, the cat bird, the jay andothers of their kin settled on the trees near the young man with theyellow hair, and gazed at him with curiosity and without fear. A rabbitpeeped up now and then, but beyond the new presence the wilderness wasundisturbed, and it became obvious to the animal tribe that the strangermeant no harm. Nor did the shiftless one himself discern any alien note.The sky, a solid curve of blue, bore nowhere a trace of smoke. It wasundarkened and unstained, the same lonely brightness that had dawned everymorning for untold thousands of years.

  Shif'less Sol showed no disappointment. Again all seemed to be happeningas he wished. Presently he left the hill and, face toward the south, beganto walk swiftly and silently down the rows of trees. There was but littleundergrowth, nothing to check his speed, and he strode on and on. After awhile he came to a brook running through low soft soil and then he did astrange thing, the very act that a white man travelling through thedangerous forest would have avoided. He planted one foot in the yieldingsoil near the water's edge, and then stepping across, planted the other inexactly the same way on the far side.

  When another yard brought him to hard ground he stopped and looked backwith satisfaction. On either side of the brook remained the firm deepimpression of a human foot, of a white foot, the toes being turnedoutward. No wilderness rover could mistake it, and yet it was hundreds ofmiles to the nearest settlement of Shif'less Sol's kind.

  He took another look at the footsteps, smiled again and resumed hisjourney. The character of the country did not change. Still the lowrolling hills, still the splendid forests of oak and elm, beech, maple andhickory, and of all their noble kin, still the little brooks of clearwater, still the deer and the buffalo, grazing in the glades, and takingbut little notice of the strange human figure as it passed. Presently, theshiftless one stopped again and he did another thing, yet stranger thanthe pressing-in of the foot-prints beside the little stream. He drew thehatchet from his belt and cut a chip out of the bark of a hickory. Ahundred yards further on he did the same thing, and, at three hundredyards or so, he cut the chip for the third time. He looked well at themarks, saw that they were clear, distinct and unmistakable, and then thepeculiar little smile of satisfaction would pass again over his face.

  But these stops were only momentary. Save for them he never ceased hisrapid course, and always it led straight toward the south. When the sunwas squarely overhead, pouring down a flood of golden beams, he paused inthe shade of a mighty oak, and took food from his belt. He might haveeaten there in silence and obscurity, but once more the shiftless oneshowed a singular lack of caution and woodcraft. He drew together drysticks, ignited a fire with flint and steel, and cooked deer meat over it.He let the fire burn high, and a thin column of dark smoke rose far upinto the blue. Any savage, roaming the wilderness, might see it, but theshiftless one was reckless. He let the fire burn on, after his food wascooked, while the column of smoke grew thicker and mounted higher, and atethe savory steaks, lying comfortably between two upthrust roots. Now andthen he uttered a little sigh of satisfaction, because he had travelledfar and hard, and he was hungry. Food meant new strength.

  But he was not as reckless as he seemed. Nothing that passed in the forestwithin the range of eyesight escaped his notice. He heard the leaf, whenit fell close by, and the light tread of a deer passing. He remained afull hour between the roots, a long time for one who might have a purpose,and, after he rose, he did not scatter the fire and trample upon thebrands after the wilderness custom when one was ready to depart. Theflames had died down, but he let the coals smoulder on, and, hundreds ofyards away, he could still see their smoke. Now, he sought the softestparts of the earth and trod there deliberately, leaving many footprints.Again he cut little chips from the trees as he passed, but never ceasedhis swift and silent journey to the south. The hours fled by, and a darkshade appeared in the east. It deepened into dusk, and spread steadilytoward the zenith. The sun, a golden ball, sank behind a hill in thewest, and then the shiftless one stopped.

  He ascended a low hill again, and took a long scrutinizing look around thewhole horizon. But his gaze was not apprehensive. On the contrary, it wasexpectant, and his face seemed to show a slight disappointment when thewilderness merely presented its wonted aspect. Then he built another fire,not choosing a secluded glade, but the top of the hill, the most exposedspot that he could find, and, after he had eaten his supper, he sat besideit, the expectant air still on his face.

  Nothing came. But the shiftless one sat long. He raked up dead leaves oflast year's winter and made a pillow, against which he reclinedluxuriously. Shif'less Sol was one who drew mental and physical comfortfrom every favoring circumstance, and the leaves felt very soft to hishead and shoulders. He was not in the least lonesome, although the nighthad fully come, and heavy darkness lay like a black robe over the forest.He stretched out his moccasined toes to the fire, closed his eyes for amoment or two, and a dreamy look of satisfaction rested on his face. Itseemed to the shiftless one that he lay in the very lap of luxury, in thevery best of worlds.

  But when he opened his eyes again he continued to watch the forest, orrather he watched with his ears now, as he lay close to the earth, and hishearing, at all times, was so acute that it seemed to border upon instinctor divination. But no sound save the usual ones of the forest and thenight came to him, and he remained quite still, thinking.

  Shif'less Sol Hyde was in an exalted mood, and the flickering firelightshowed a face refined and ennobled by a great purpose. Leading a life thatmade him think little of hardship and danger he thought nothing at all ofthem now, but he felt instead a great buoyancy, and a hope equally great.

  He lay awake a full three hours after the dark had come, and he rose onlytwice from his reclining position, each time merely to replenish the firewhich remained a red core in the circling blackness. Always he waslistening and always he heard nothing but the usual sounds of the forestand the night. The darkness grew denser and heavier, but after a while itbegan to thin and lighten. The sky became clear, and the great stars swamin the dusky blue. Then Shif'less Sol fell asleep, head on the leaves,feet to the fire, and slept soundly all through the night.

  He was up at dawn, cooked his breakfast, and then, after another long andsearching examination of the surrounding forest, departed, leaving thecoals of the fire to smoulder, and tell as they might that some one hadpassed. Shif'less Sol throughout that morning repeated the tactics of thepreceding day, leaving footprints that would last, and cutting pieces ofbark from the trees with his sharp hatchet. At the noon hour he stopped,according to custom, and, just when he had lighted his fire, he uttered alow cry of pleasure.

  The shiftless one was gazing back upon his own trail, and the singularlook of exaltation upon his face deepened. He rose to his feet and stood,very erect, in the attitude of one who welcomes. No undergrowth was here,and he could see far down the aisles of trunks.

  A figure, so distant that only a keen eye would notice it, wasapproaching. It came on swiftly and silently, much after the manner of theshiftless one himself, elastic, and instinct with strength.

  The figure was that of a boy in years, but of a man in size, surpassingShif'less Sol himself in height, yellow haired, blue-eyed, and dressed,too, in the neatest of forest garb. His whole appearance was uncommon,likely anywhere to attract attention and admiration. The shiftless onedrew a long breath of mingled welcome and approval.

  "I knew that he would be first," he murmured.

  Then he sat down and began to broil a juicy deer steak on the end of asharpened stick.

  Henry Ware came into the little glade. He had seen the fire afar and heknew who waited. All was plain to him like the print of a book, and,without a word, he dropped down on the other side of the fire facingShif'less Sol. The two nodded, but their eyes spoke far more. Sol held outthe steak, now crisp and brown and full of savor, and Henry began to eat.Sol quickly broiled another for himself, and joined him in the pleasanttask, over which they were silent for a little while.

  "I was on the Ohio," said Henry at last, "when the trapper brought meyour message, but I started at once."

  "O' course," said Shif'less Sol, "I never doubted it for a minute. Ireckon that you've come about seven hundred miles."

  "Nearer eight," said Henry, "but I'm fresh and strong, and we need all ourstrength, Sol, because it's a great task that lies before us."

  "It shorely is," said Sol, "an' that's why I sent the message. I don'twant to brag, Henry, but we've done a big thing or two before, an' maybewe kin do a bigger now."

  He spoke the dialect of the border, he was not a man of books, but thatgreat look of exaltation came into his face again, and the boy on theother side of the fire shared it.

  "It seems to me, Sol," said Henry presently, "that we've been selected forwork of a certain kind. We finish one job, and then another on the sameline begins."

  "Mebbe it's because we like to do it, an' are fit fur it," said Solphilosophically. "I've noticed that a river gen'ally runs in a bed thatsuits it. I don't know whether the bed is thar because the river is, orthe river is thar 'cause the bed is, but it's shore that they're both thartogether, an' you can't git aroun' that."

  "There's something in what you say," said Henry.

  Then they relapsed into silence, and, in a half hour, as if by mutualconsent, they rose, left the fire burning, and departed, still walkingsteadily toward the south.

  The country grew rougher. The hills were higher and closer together, andthe undergrowth became thick. Neither took any precautions as they passedamong the slender bushes, frequently trampling them down and leaving signsthat the blindest could not fail to see. Now and then the two looked back,but they beheld only the forest and the forest people.

  "I don't think I ever saw the game so tame before," said Henry.

  "Which means," said Sol, "that the warriors ain't hunted here fur a longtime. I ain't seen a single sign o' them."

  "Nor I."

  They fell silent and scarcely spoke until the sun was setting again, whenthey stopped for the night, choosing a conspicuous place, as Sol had donethe evening before. After supper, they sought soft places on the turf, andlay in peace, gazing up at the great stars. Henry was the first to breakthe silence.

  "One is coming," he said. "I can hear the footstep. Listen!"

  His ear was to the earth, and the shiftless one imitated him. At the endof a minute he spoke.

  "Yes," he said, "I hear him, too. We'll make him welcome."

  He rose, put a fresh piece of wood on the fire, and smiled, as he saw theflame leap up and crackle merrily.

  "Here he is," said Henry.

  The figure that emerged from the bushes was thick-set and powerful, thestrong face seamed and tanned by the wind, rain and sun of years. The manstepped into the circle of the firelight, and held out his hand. Eachshook it with a firm and hearty clasp, and Tom Ross took his seat withthem beside the fire. They handed him food first, and then he said:

  "I was away up in the Miami country, huntin' buffalo, when the word cameto me, Sol, but I quit on the minute an' started."

  "I was shore you would," said the shiftless one quietly. "Buffaloes arebig game, but we're huntin' bigger now."

  "I was never in this part of the country before," said Tom Ross, lookingaround curiously at the ghostly tree trunks.

  "I've been through here," said Henry, "and it runs on in the same way forhundreds of miles in every direction."

  "Bigger an' finer than any o' them old empires that Paul used to tell usabout," said Shif'less Sol.

  "Yes," said Henry.

  The three looked at one another significantly.

  They wrapped themselves in their blankets by and by, and went to sleep onthe soft turf. Henry was the first to awake, just when the dawn wasturning from pink to red, and a single glance revealed to him an object onthe horizon that had not been there the night before. A man stood on thecrest of a low hill, and even at the distance, Henry recognized him. Hiscomrades were awaking and he turned to them.

  "See!" he said, pointing with a long forefinger.

  Their eyes followed, and they too recognized the man.

  "He'll be here in a minute," said Shif'less Sol. "He jest eats up space."

  He spoke the truth, as it seemed scarcely a minute before Long Jim Hartentered the camp, showing no sign of fatigue. The three welcomed him andgave him a place at their breakfast fire.

  "I wuz at Marlowe," he said, "when the word reached me, but I started justan hour later. I struck your trail, Sol, two days back, an' I travelednearly all last night. I saw Henry join you an' then Tom."

  Shif'less Sol laughed. He had a soft, mellow laugh that crinkled up thecorners of his mouth, and made his eyes shine. There was no doubt that aman who laughed such a laugh was enjoying himself.

  "I reckon you didn't have much trouble follerin' that trail o' ourn," hesaid.

  Jim Hart answered the laugh with a grin.

  "Not much," he replied. "It was like a wagon road through the wilderness.The ashes uv your last camp fire weren't sca'cely cold when I passed by."

  "We're all here 'cept the fifth feller," said Tom Ross.

  "The fifth will come," said Henry emphatically.

  "Uv course," said Tom Ross with equal emphasis.

  "And when he comes," said Shif'less Sol, "we take right hold o' the bigjob."

  They lingered awhile over their breakfast, but saw no one approaching.Then they took up the march again, going steadily southward in singlefile, talking little, but leaving a distinct trail. They were only four,but they were a formidable party, all strong of arm, keen of eye and ear,skilled in the lore of the forest, and every one bore the best weaponsthat the time could furnish.

  Toward noon the day grew very warm and clouds gathered in the sky. Thewind became damp.

  "Rain," said Henry. "I'm sorry of that. I wish it wouldn't break before heovertook us."

  "S'pose we stop an' make ready," said Shif'less Sol. "You know we ain'tbound to be in a big hurry, an' it won't help any o' us to get a soakin'."

  "You're shorely right, Sol," said Jim Hart. "We're bound to take the bestuv care uv ourselves."

  They looked around with expert eyes, and quickly chose a stony outcrop orhollow in the side of a hill, just above which grew two gigantic beechesvery close together. Then it was wonderful to see them work, so swift andskillful were they. They cut small saplings with their hatchets, and, withthe little poles and fallen bark of last year, made a rude thatch whichhelped out the thick branches of the beeches overhead. They also built upthe sides of the hollow with the same materials, and the whole was done inless than ten minutes. Then they raked in heaps of dead leaves and satdown upon them comfortably. Many drops of water would come through theleaves and thatch, but such as they, hardened to the wilderness, would notnotice them.

  Meanwhile the storm was gathering with the rapidity so frequent in thegreat valley. All the little clouds swung together and made a big one thatcovered nearly the whole sky. The air darkened rapidly. Thunder began togrowl and mutter and now and then emitted a sharp crash. Lightning cut theheavens from zenith to horizon, and the forest would leap into the light,standing there a moment, vivid, like tracery.

  A blaze more brilliant than all the rest cleft wide the sky and, as theylooked toward the North, they saw directly in the middle of the flame ablack dot that had not been there before.

  "He's coming," said Henry in the quiet tone that indicated nothing morethan a certainty fulfilled.

  "Just in time to take a seat in our house," said the shiftless one.

  Sol ran out and gave utterance to a long echoing cry that sounded like acall. It was answered at once by the new black dot under the Northernhorizon, which was now growing fast in size, as it came on rapidly. Ittook a human shape, and, thirty yards away, a fine, delicately-chiselledface, the face of a scholar and dreamer, remarkable in the wilderness, wasrevealed. The face belonged to a youth, tall and strong, but not so talland large as Henry.

  "Here we are, Paul," said Shif'less Sol. "We've fixed fur you."

  "And mighty glad I am to overtake you fellows," said Paul Cotter,"particularly at this time."

  He ran for the shelter just as the forest began to moan, and great dropsof rain rushed down upon them. He was inside in a moment, and each gavehis hand a firm grasp.

  "We're all here now," said Henry.

  "All here and ready for the great work," said Shif'less Sol, his tranquilface illumined again with that look of supreme exaltation.

  Then the storm burst. The skies opened and dropped down floods of water.They heard it beating on the leaves and thatch overhead, and some camethrough, falling upon them but they paid no heed. They sat placidly untilthe rush and roar passed, and then Henry said to the others:

  "We're to stick to the task that we've set ourselves through thick andthrough thin, through everything?"

  "Yes! Yes!"

  "If one falls, the four that are left keep on?"

  "Yes! yes!"

  "If three fall and only two are left, these must not flinch."

  "Yes! yes!"

  "If four go down and only one is left, then he whoever he may be, must goon and win alone?"

  "Yes! yes!" came forth with deep emphasis.