"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:
"Americam coquin, '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 An-drrew Jack-_son_, 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 M'sieu' 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 An-drrew Jack-_son_," replied Coulon, seeing that the father's throat was choked with sobs, "General An-drrew Jack-_son_ 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 An-drrew Jack-_son_. 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."