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"Those reptiles of Americans, I say to you, Marcel,--mark my words!--that they have it in their heads to betray Louisiana to the Spaniard. They are tr-r-raitors!" Old Galmiche rolled the word viciously on his French tongue.
"Yes," assented his young companion, absently. He quite agreed with Galmiche--the Americans were traitors, oh, of the blackest black! But the sky overhead was so blue, the wind blowing in from the Gulf and lifting the dark curls on his bared forehead was so moist and sweet, the scene under his eyes, although familiar, was so enchanting! He rose, the better to see it all once again.
Grand Terre, the low-lying strip of an island upon which he stood, was at that time--September, 1814--the stronghold of Jean Lafitte, the famous freebooter, or, as he chose rather to call himself, privateer, and his band of smugglers and buccaneers.
The island, which lies across the mouth of Barataria Bay, with a narrow pass at each end opening, into the Gulf of Mexico, had been well fortified. Lafitte's own bungalow-like house was protected on the Gulf side by an enclosing wall surmounted by small cannon. The rich furniture within the house--the pictures, books, Oriental draperies, silver and gold plate and rare crystal--attested equally--so declared his enemies--to the fastidious taste of the Lord of Barataria and to his lawlessness.
The landlocked bay holds in its arms many small islands.
These served Lafitte as places of deposit for smuggled or pirated goods. Water-craft of every description--more than one sloop or lugger decorated with bright lengths of silk or woolen cloth--rode at ease in the secure harbor. In a curve of the mainland a camp had been established for the negroes imported in defiance of United States law, from Africa, to be sold in Louisiana and elsewhere. The buccaneers themselves were quartered on the main island.
Marcel Lefort, the slender, dark-eyed Creole voyageur, drew a deep sigh of delight as he resumed his seat on the grassy sward beside Galmiche. But he sprang again to his feet, for the tranquil morning air was suddenly disturbed by the reverberating boom of a cannon!
Island, bay and mainland were instantly in commotion. Lafitte himself appeared on the east end, of his veranda, spy-glass in hand.
The noted outlaw was a tall, sinewy, graceful man, then a little past thirty, singularly handsome, with clear-cut features, dark hair and fierce gray eyes which could, upon occasion, soften to tenderness. The hands which lifted the spy-glass were white and delicate.
He lowered the glass.
"A British sloop of war in the offing," he remarked to his lieutenant, Dominique You, standing beside him. "She has sent off a pinnace with a flag of truce. I go to meet it. Order an answering salute."
A moment later he had stepped into his four-oared barge and was skimming lightly down the Great Pass toward the Gulf.
When he returned, two officers in the British uniform were seated in the barge with him. The freebooters, a formidable array of French, Italians, Portuguese and West Indians, with here and there a sunburned American, stared with bold and threatening eyes at the intruders as they passed through the whispering chenaie (oak grove) to the house, to unfold their mission to the "Great Chief," and to share his princely hospitality.
Shortly after nightfall of the same day, on one of the little inner islands, Marcel Lefort stood leaning upon his long boat paddle, awaiting orders; his pirogue was drawn up among the reeds hard by. He lifted his head, but hardly had his keen eye caught the shadowy outlines of a boat on the bay before its occupants had landed.
"The lad is too young," objected Dominique You, as the two men drew near.
"His father was a gunner in Kelerec's army at sixteen," returned Lafitte. "You are sure of the route, Marcel?" he continued, touching the voyageur on the shoulder.
"Yes, my captain. As the bird is of his flight through the air. This is not the first time," he added proudly, "that I have brought secret despatches from New Orleans to Barataria."
"True. Now listen. You will set out at once with this." He handed the lad a small packet wrapped in oil silk, which Marcel thrust into his bosom. "You will make all speed to the city," he continued. "There you will find Monsieur Pierre Lafitte, my brother--whether he be in prison, at the smithy, or at the Cafe Turpin--"
"Yes, my captain."
"And give the packet into his own hand--"
"Yes, my captain."
"None but his, you understand. In case the packet should be lost or stolen by the way, you will all the same seek monsieur, my brother, and say to him that the British have this day offered to me, Jean Lafitte, Lord of Barataria, the sum of thirty thousand dollars, the rank of captain in the British navy, and a free pardon for my men, if I will assist them in their invasion of Louisiana. I am sure that monsieur, my brother, will not need to be told that Jean Lafitte spurns this insulting proposition. But you will say to him that the governor must be warned at once. The British officers will be--detained--here until you are well on your way."
"Yes, my captain."
"You quite understand, Marcel? And you quite understand also that if you risk your life, it is for Louisiana?"
"For Louisiana!" echoed Marcel, solemnly. He touched his cap in the darkness, stepped warily into the pirogue, pushed off, and dropped his paddle into the water.
The needle-like boat threaded its way in and out among the islands, and leaped into the mouth of a sluggish gulfward-stealing bayou. Here a few strokes of the paddle swept pirogue and paddler into a strange and lonely world. The tall cypress-trees on each bank, draped with funeral moss, cast impenetrable shadows on the water; the deathlike silence was broken only by the occasional ominous hoot of an owl or the wheezy snort of an alligator; the clammy air breathed poison. But the stars overhead were bright, and Marcel's heart throbbed exultant.
"For Louisiana!" he murmured. "He might have chosen Galmiche, or Jose, or Nez Coupe; but it is I, Marcel Lefort, whom the Great Chief has sent with the warning. For Louisiana! For Louisiana!" His muscular arms thrilled to the finger-tips with the rhythmic sweep of his paddle to the words.
Turn after turn of the sinuous, ever-narrowing bayou slipped behind him as the night advanced. He kept a wary eye upon the black masses of foliage to right and left, knowing that a runaway negro, a mutineer from Barataria, or a murderous Choctaw might lurk there in wait for the passing boatman; or an American spy,--he quickened his strokes at the thought!--to wrest from him the precious despatch.
"Those vipers of Americans!" he breathed. "The Governor Claiborne, since the Great Chief trusts him, must have become a Creole at his heart. But the rest have the heart of a cockatrice. And these British, as Galmiche says, are surely Americans in disguise."
The young Creole's ideas were not strange, his upbringing considered. He had stood in 1803, a boy of eight, beside his father on the Place d'Armes of New Orleans and watched the French flag descend slowly from the tall staff, and the Stars and Stripes ascend proudly in its place. He had seen the impotent tears and heard the impotent groans of the French Creoles when the new American governor, standing on the balcony of the Cabildo, took possession, in the name of the United States, of the French province of Louisiana.
Daily since then, almost hourly, he had heard his father and his father's friends denounce the Americans as double-dyed traitors, who had bought Louisiana from France that they might hand it over to the still more detested Spaniards.
"Vipers of Americans!" he repeated, humming under his breath a refrain much in vogue:
'Bille en nanquin,
Voleur du pain."
("American rogue, dressed in nankeen, bread-stealer.")
"It will soon be morning." He glanced up at the open sky, for he was breasting the surface of a small lake. "Good!" The pirogue slipped into another bayou at the upper end of the lagoon. The shadows here seemed thicker than ever after the starlit lake.
"Ugh!" ejaculated Marcel. An unseen log had lurched against the pirogue, upsetting it and throwing its occupant into the water. He sank, but rose in a flash and reached out, swimming, after pirogue and paddle.
But the log lurched forward again, snapping viciously, and before he could draw back, a huge alligator had seized his left forearm between his great jaws. The conical teeth sank deep in the flesh.
Marcel tugged under water at the knife in his belt. It seemed an eternity before he could draw it. A swift vision of the Great Chief's brooding eyes darted through his brain.
"For Louisiana!" The words burst involuntarily from his lips as the keen blade buried itself under the knotty scales deep in the monster's throat. The mighty jaws relaxed and dropped the limp and bloody arm.
Half an hour later the messenger stepped again into his recovered boat. A groan forced its way between his clenched teeth as he set his paddle to the dark waters of the bayou, but its rhythmic sweep did not slacken.
In the gray dawnlight of the second morning Lafitte's messenger came up from the Mississippi River at New Orleans, and walked swiftly across the Place d'Armes into Conde Street.
The nineteen-year-old lad looked twice his age; his lips were parched, his eyes were bloodshot, a red spot glowed in each livid cheek. One arm, wrapped in a bloody sleeve of his hunting-shirt, hung limply at his side. He paid no heed to the wondering questions of the few people he met, but sped like one in a dream to his goal.
In the great smithy of the Lafitte brothers, which served as a blind for their smuggling operations, the forges were already aglow, the army of black slaves at work, and Pierre Lafitte, who, although outlawed like his brother, knew himself secure in this citadel, was giving orders. At sight of Marcel he leaped forward. "Why, Marcel!" he cried. "Why, my poor lad, what--"
But Marcel had thrust the packet into his hand, and dropped as one dead at his feet.
"Those Americans, they are traitors, oh, of the blackest black!" The familiar phrase in his father's well-known voice fell upon Marcel's returning consciousness. He listened with closed eyes. "And that General Andrew Jackson, look you, Coulon, he has the liver of a Spaniard. He will betray Louisiana. That sees itself!"
"That sees itself," echoed old Coulon.
Marcel opened his eyes. "Who is General Andrew Jackson?" he demanded, surprised at the stiffness of his own tongue. And those hands, pale and inert, lying on the coverlet before him, could they be his own? And why should he, Marcel, be in his bed in broad daylight? Suddenly he remembered that yesterday he had fetched a despatch to Monsieur Pierre from the Great Chief--
"Did Mister Pierre--" he began, eagerly, trying to rise on his elbow.
"Thank God!" ejaculated old Lefort, commonly called "Piff-Paff," springing to the bedside. "The boy is himself once more. But not so fast, my little Marcel, not so fast!"
Many weeks, it appeared, had passed since Marcel had been borne in the strong arms of Pierre Lafitte to Lefort's cottage near the smithy. Fever and delirium had set in before the worn figure was laid on the couch.
"But now," tears were streaming down the weather-beaten face of the old gunner, "now, by God's help, we shall get on our feet!"
"But who is General Andrew Jackson?" persisted Marcel, querulously.
"General Andrew Jackson," replied Coulon, seeing that the father's throat was choked with sobs, "General Andrew Jackson is an American. He arrives from day to day at New Orleans. He is in league with those British who are Americans in disguise. He comes to betray Louisiana to the Spaniard."
"The monster!" said Marcel, drowsily.
His recovery thenceforth was rapid. Old Lefort's private forge was in his own court-yard. Here, among the rustling bananas and the flowering pomegranates, where he had played, a motherless infant, the slim, emaciated lad sat or walked about in the November sunshine. And while Marcel hung about, the smith, hammering out the delicate Lefort wrought-iron work so prized in New Orleans to-day, anathematized indiscriminately General Jackson, the Spaniards, the British and the Americans.
Meanwhile strange sounds filtered into the courtyard from without--the beat of drums, the shrill concord of fifes, the measured tread of marching feet.
Marcel heard and wondered. He was not permitted to walk abroad, but what he saw from his window under the roof quickened his blood.
"Is it that Governor Claiborne has heeded the Great Chief's warning?" he asked of his father.
"The governor is an American," said Piff-Paff. "All Americans are perfidious. But the traitor of traitors is General Andrew Jackson. Be quiet, my son. Do you wish to die of fever?"
"When I do get out," Marcel was saying to himself one sunny day early in December, "I will slay the traitor with my own hand."
A steady tread came echoing down the corridor, and the Great Chief stepped into the court-yard.
"Mister Jean!" cried Piff-Paff, running to meet him.
Lafitte pressed the old man's hands in his, and turned to Marcel.
"Aha, my little game-cock, there you are!" he said, catching the boy in his arms. "My faith, but you paddled well for Louisiana that time we know of! And the arm? Is it all there?" A winning tenderness softened the fierce eyes. "But I am pressed for time, my friends," he continued, stepping back.
As he spoke he unbuckled his belt, to which hung a short sword with jewelled cross-hilt. "Keep this lad, in memory of Lafitte--and the alligator," he laughed, handing sword and belt to Marcel, who stood open-mouthed, unable for sheer ecstasy to utter a word.
"And look you, Marcel," his tones became grave, "I charge you henceforth to forget the road to Barataria. It leads to riches, yes, but it is a crooked and dishonest road. I would I had never myself set foot in such ways!" He paused a moment, his eyes bent on the ground." Learn your father's honest trade. Live by it, an honest man and a good citizen."
"Yes, my captain," stammered Marcel.
"Swear!" said Lafitte, imperiously.
"I swear!" breathed Marcel, his hand on the cross-hilt of the sword. "By God's help!"
"Amen!" said Lafitte, reverently. He turned away.
"But where are you going, Mister Jean?" cried Piff-Paff. "Do you not know that a reward of five hundred dollars is offered for your arrest?"
"I know." Lafitte shrugged his shoulders disdainfully. "I go to offer my services to General Jackson."
"General Jackson!" echoed Piff-Paff. His jaws dropped. He stood like one suddenly turned to stone while the chief's retreating footsteps rang down the alleyway. "General Jackson!_" he repeated, mechanically. "But he shall not!"
With a roar of rage he leaped for the saber--his old saber which hung by the forge. "Myself, I will slay the traitor Jackson before Mister Jean dishonors himself! I, Blaise Lefort, will save him."
He dashed out. Marcel followed, buckling on his cross-hilted sword as he ran.
"Nevertheless it is I who will destroy the traitor!" he muttered. "I have already said it."
The narrow streets of the old town presented a unique spectacle. The tall dormer-window houses with their latticed balconies looked down upon hurrying crowds almost as motley as those of the carnival. But the faces of these men and women were earnest, grimly determined.
And soldiers, soldiers everywhere! United States soldiers in trim uniforms; Coffee's Tennesseeans in brown shirts and slouched hats; Planche's gaily clad Creole infantry; D'Aquin's freemen of color; Indians in blankets and leggings--all carrying guns, all stepping briskly to drumbeat and fife-call.
Pennons, guidons and banners tossed about in the orderly confusion; American and French flags waved together from balconies and windows.
"But, look!" exclaimed Marcel in pained astonishment, "our Creoles are drilling with the Americans!"
"They are mad!" growled Piff-Paff. "This General Jackson has poisoned their hearts."
In truth, the threatened attack on New Orleans by the British had united Creoles and Americans. A few only of the former held aloof--like old Lefort himself; these, honest in their convictions, were uncompromising.
Marcel set his teeth, gripping his sword. At the entrance to General Jackson's headquarters in Royal Street they were questioned by a sentry, who looked from the swarthy old man to the pale lad, and let them pass.
They hurried down the long, dim corridor, which opened upon a sunny courtyard hung with blossoming rose vines. Huge water-jars were ranged against the wall. A fountain played in the center, and round the pool beneath, some soldiers in uniform were lounging and gossiping. Marcel glanced curiously at these as he followed his father up the winding stair. The arched hall above, with its Spanish windows, opened into an anteroom.
Father and son paused instinctively here among the shadows. The large room beyond the folding doors, which were thrown open, was filled with the afternoon sunshine; a table strewn with maps and papers was placed near one of the long windows. Beyond it, in an armchair, was seated a man in an attitude of rigid attention. Several staff-officers were gathered about him.
The Great Chief stood directly in front of the seated figure. He had doubtless been speaking for some minutes. Now, holding out his sword, he concluded:
"And I offer my services and those of my Baratarians in this hour of my country's peril to General Jackson."
He spoke in English. Marcel, who was acquainted with the forbidden tongue, glanced sidewise at his father. He saw that the old man had also understood. Both father and son, as if moved by the same spring, made a step forward.
But both paused. General Jackson had risen from his seat. The light fell full upon his face as he reached out without a word and grasped Lafitte's hand.
At sight of the tall, martial figure, erect and commanding in the simple uniform of the United States army, the compelling face, with its crown of bristling silvered hair, the eyes that shone with a curious, soft fire, the firm mouth and masterful chin, Marcel Lefort's soul seemed drawn from his bosom as by an invisible hand. A mist gathered before his eyes, his throat clicked, a mysterious longing suddenly swept over him from head to foot.
Before he knew what he was about he had traversed the antechamber and entered the larger room, his footfalls on the bare polished floor disturbing the dramatic silence.
"My captain!" he cried, stopping short and lifting his eager, boyish face to the Great Chief. "My general!" He turned with outstretched sword to the greater chief beyond. He wished to say more, but the throbbing of his heart was too loud in his ears.
Suddenly Marcel heard a footstep sound behind him. His father! He had quite forgotten his father.
"He will slay me where I stand!" he groaned inwardly.
A hand whose touch thrilled him was slipped under his arm. He felt himself drawn to his father's side.
"General Andrew Jackson,"--the old gunner spoke with great dignity and feeling although his English was strange,--"we have come, my son an' me, to hoffer our swo'de to dose United State'. Yes, my general. If dose United State' will make us the honour to accep'."
"By the Eternal," cried General Jackson, surprised into his favorite oath, "with such a spirit in the air, I would storm all the powers of the world!"
In less than a month the memorable Battle of New Orleans was fought--January 8, 1815. The Baratarians, under command of Jean Lafitte, rendered distinguished service in the short but bloody and decisive engagement. The two batteries directed by Beluche and Dominique You were especially commended in the general's official reports. Piff-Paff and his son served side by side in Dominique You's battery.
When the battle was over, Marcel stood with his fellow gunners on the parapet of Rodriguez Canal and looked out across the field--smoke-hung under the cloudless morning sky. The British dead, in their scarlet uniforms, were lying row on row, one behind the other, like grain cut down by the mower's scythe. The boy's heart sickened. But a prolonged cheer came ringing along the parapet.
General Jackson was walking slowly down the line, stopping in front of each command to salute the men and to praise their coolness and courage. As he came up, the Baratarians broke into wild shouts. The great commander shook hands with Lafitte and his brother, who stood a little apart.
"Well done, Baratarians!" he said, stepping into the midst of the powder-grimed crew. His swift glance fell upon a lad whose luminous eyes were fixed upon him.
"Well done, my little creole!" he added, a rare smile flashing across his worn face.
"My general," said Marcel, saluting proudly, "me, I am an American!"