The Black Wolf's Breed/Chapter 21
THE FALL OF PENSACOLA
I SLIPPED slipped down the anchor chain without noise into the throbbing sea, and swam ashore to a point some three or four cable lengths away. Guided by the single voice which still sang of war, of glory and of death, I pushed easily into the ring of hideously painted savages who surrounded the singer. To unaccustomed eyes this would have been a fearful sight.
Two hundred warriors sat motionless as bronze idols about their chief; two hundred naked bodies glinted back the pine knot's fitful glow. In the centre of this threatening circle moved Tuskahoma, two great crimson blotches upon his cheeks, treading that weird suggestive measure the Indians knew so well. Round and round a little pine-tree, shorn of its branches and striped with red, he crept, danced and sang. His words came wild and irregular, a sort of rhythmic medley, now soft and low as the murmur of the summer ocean, now thrilling every ear by their sudden ferocity and fearful energy. Now it was the gentle lullaby, the mother's crooning, the laughter of a child; again, the bursting of the tempest, the lightning's flash, the thunder's rumbling roar.
His arms raised to heaven like some gaunt priest of butchery, he invoked the mighty Manitou of his tribe, then dropping prone upon the ground he crawled, a sinuous serpent, among the trees.
For awhile his listeners wandered away upon their chieftain's words to the waiting ones at home, to hunting grounds of peace and plenty; melodious as a maiden's sigh that song breathed of love and lover's hopes, it wailed for departed friends, extolled their virtues, and called down heaven's curses upon the coward of to-morrow's fight. Then the fierce gleam of shining steel, one wild war-whoop and all again was still. His words faded away in the echoless night till a holy hush brooded o'er beach and forest.
Then the solitary dancer wound about the ring as the crouching panther steals upon her prey, while peal after peal came the frightful cries of barbaric conflict, the shrieks of the wounded—a wild, victorious shout blended with a hopeless dying scream.
With a master's touch he played upon their vibrant feelings; not a key of human emotion he left unsounded—fame, pride, hate, love and death—his song expressed them all.
Thoroughly frenzied, warrior after warrior now began to join him in the ring; voice after voice caught up the dread refrain which terrorized the trained soldiery of Europe and filled their imaginations with the nameless horrors of unrelenting war.
High above the din Tuskahoma lifted now his ferocious battle cry; advancing upon the blazed sapling he sank his tomahawk deep into the soft white wood, then moved swiftly out of the circle to his own fire. This was the act by which he announced his assumption of supreme authority.
Frantic with excitement the unleashed throng rushed upon this fancied enemy, and soon but the mangled fragments and the roots marked where it had stood.
And the forest slumbered and the sentry paced his lonely path.
It is not my purpose to speak in detail of those matters of history which have been so much better described by men of learning. I would merely mention in passing such smaller affairs as relate directly to my own narrative.
Short and sharp was the conflict which, under God, gave our arms the victory at Pensacola. Swarming over the palisades or boldly tearing them down, the Choctaws, led by Tuskahoma, swept the Spaniards from their works. It so happened that Tuskahoma and I mounted the fortifications together. As I essayed to drop down upon the inside my sword belt caught upon the top of a picket, leaving me dangling in mid air, an easy prey to those below had they only noticed my plight. Tuskahoma paused to sever the belt with his knife, and by this accident I was first within the Spanish works, sword and pistol in hand. Soon a hundred were by my side.
The Spanish troops, inured to civilized warfare, could not stand before these yelling demons, springing here and there elusive as phantoms, wielding torch and tomahawk with deadly effect.
In the very forefront, shoulder to shoulder, with a laugh and a parry, a lunge and a jest, fought the Chevalier de la Mora. Merry as a lad at play, resolute and quick, I could but stop betimes to wonder at the fellow. Gallant, gay and debonnaire, he sang a rippling little air from soft Provence, and whirled his blade with such dainty skill that even the stoical Indians gazed in awe upon the laughing cavalier. Fighting through a bye-street, he met, steel to steel, a Spanish gentleman, within the sweep of whose sword lay half a dozen of our good fellows.
De la Mora glanced at this silent tribute to the Spaniard's prowess; his face lighted up with a soldier's joy. He planted one foot staunchly across a prostrate corpse, and right jauntily rang out the hissing music of their steel. Instinctively I paused to watch, and as instinctively understood that though pressed to his best, de la Mora desired to be left alone. Verily it was a gentleman's fight, and no odds, for love and glory's sake, though the Spaniard might have had a whit the better. As I fought on, I heard the swift hurtle of a flying knife, and saw the Spaniard drop his sword. De la Mora glanced round with indignant eyes to the Choctaw who had made the cast, now looking for approval from this gentleman who sang like a woman and fought like a fiend. The Chevalier was like to have wreaked summary vengeance for striking so foul a blow. Through the press I could see him go up to his late adversary, bare-headed and courteous, to extricate him from the motley, bleeding group wherein he had fallen. Throwing his powerful shoulder against a door, he broke it down, and tenderly carried the wounded gentleman within. I could then see him quietly standing guard at the door, waiting for the turmoil to cease, for it was then quite evident that the day was ours.
Already the Choctaws were busy tearing the reeking scalps from the living and the dead. De la Mora's face grew deathly pale at the sight; his cheeks did play the woman, and one might deem him my lady's dapper page, catching his maiden whiff of blood. This generous act kept him from being in at the close of the fray, and robbed him of the greater meed of glory which he might have thereby won. Twice that day, as he struck down a pike aimed at my breast, did he make me to feel in my heart like a lying thief—I, who was weak enough to imagine his dishonour.
Just at the last there was a trifling incident occurred which my lads insisted was greatly to my credit. News of this was carried straight to the Governor, and much was made thereof.
Bienville, with his Frenchmen, battered down the gates, and before many minutes the proud Castilian pennon lowered to the milk-white flag of France. On sea and land were we alike successful.
An hour after Pensacola fell, the Spanish ships struck their colours to Champmeslin. Our greatest loss was the total destruction of the Seamew, blown up by a red-hot shot, which fell in her powder magazine.
At the surrender I caught my old commander's eye. He motioned me to draw nearer. I obeyed most reluctantly, for I expected a stern rebuke from the rugged soldier who never forgave the slightest deviation from his orders. Instead, Bienville overwhelmed me with praise. He grasped my hand, and spoke loud enough for all the troops to hear:
"Before our assembled armies I am proud to acknowledge your share in France's triumph this day; proud and grateful for your fidelity at Versailles and Paris. Your example of loyalty and courage is one worthy to be emulated by all the sons of France. The King shall have your name for further recognition."
This was a great deal for Bienville to say, especially at such a time. My own lips were dumb.
"Take your proper place, sir."
And mechanically I walked to the head of my cheering guards. I was amazed. And Serigny? Had he made up his mind to overlook my defection? Had the Governor forgiven my failure to return in Le Dauphin? Surely not. The noble voice of Bienville broke into my puzzled thought:
"Captain de Mouret, you will receive the surrender of Don Alphonso, our knightly and courteous foe."
It thrilled me with pride that I should receive so famous a sword, for knightlier foeman than Alphonso never trod a deck nor tossed his gauntlet in the lists. I stepped forward to the Spanish lines where their vanquished admiral tendered me the insignia of his command, when on a sudden thought I put back the proffered sword, assuring him so noble a soldier ought never to stand disarmed, and no hand but his should touch that valiant blade. My delighted lads cheered again like mad, and Bienville himself seemed much pleased at my courtesy.
"Bravo! Placide," he exclaimed, clapping his hands, his rugged face aglow with martial joy. His countenance changed, however, when his eye fell upon the cringing figure of Matamora, the commandant of perfidious memory.
"You, too, Matamora? What, not yet killed! Hast saved thy precious skin again? More's the pity. And do you think to merit the respect accorded manhood and good faith? By the name of honour, no. Here boy," and he beckoned to the negro slave who stood at his elbow, "do you take yon dishonoured weapon and break it before the troops."
And Matamora, full glad to escape with life and limb, willingly yielded up his sword to the black who snapped it under his foot, obedient to Bienville's nod, then cast the tainted pieces from him.
Upon the long march to Biloxi, de la Mora was the life of the command, and drew to our camp fire every straggler who could make a fair excuse to come. He knew good songs, and he sang them well; he knew good cheer, and he kept us all in radiant spirits. All, save myself. I was bitterly dejected.
"Cheer up, lad," he'd say, "What ails you? One would think you'd met reverse, instead of winning glory and promotion. It was a brave day, and bravely you did bear yourself. Would that Jerome could see."
But the consciousness of dishonour had torn elation from my soul, though, God knows, it had before been stainless in thought or deed.
"We'll have many sweet and tranquil hours at Biloxi when days of peace are come. My cottage can be your home after the barracks no longer claim your care. Agnes is the sweetest of wives; her little sister, too, a child, but fair, and clever too, beyond her years."
Verily I cared nothing for a baby sister. But Agnes?
He repeated his invitation to their cottage many times, and mentally I prayed, "O God, lead not Thy children into temptation."
When we had settled down again at Biloxi, for days I remained to myself in the barracks, and saw no one, making pretence of being busy amongst my men.
De la Mora rallied me upon my ungallant conduct, in denying to the ladies the sight of so famous a soldier.
I had now firmly determined to make it necessary to be away from the post for a season, either in campaign with the Choctaws against the Natchez, or by taking part in the coming siege of Havana. Any pretext to get away. Anything but the truth.