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Queen of swords, p.18
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       Queen of Swords, p.18

           Sara Donati
 
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  With renewed energy the sailors shoved off and the barges began to work their way laboriously through the shallow waters of Catalan and then, narrower, the Bayou Mazant. None of the men around Kit had seen the ciprière before, and they looked about themselves with interest and some disquiet, thinking, Kit could imagine it well, that they would not like to fight a battle in such a place, neither land nor lake, but a combination of the two. Full of strange trees dripping moss, as welcoming as a graveyard. A Scot asked in a low voice about alligators, as if he believed they might hear him and come to introduce themselves.

  “They don’t like the cold,” Kit told him. “In the summer months you’d see dozens of them sunning themselves, but now they’re asleep on the bottom.”

  His answer seemed to quiet some unspoken fear but also stoked general curiosity, and a half dozen whispered questions came his way. The order for silence was welcome, coming as it did just before they reached the de la Ronde canal, which turned out to be blocked with branches and whole dead trees. Something Kit had tried to tell Keane about, but the general had more faith in his advance party than he did in Kit Wyndham.

  The engineers consulted briefly, and pronounced the situation impossible. They moved on, through acres of rushes tall enough to hide a thousand men. Kit was wondering what they might do when they found that Jackson had ordered every one of these canals blocked, when they arrived at the next one and found it completely clear. Thornton issued orders, and the first of thousands of British soldiers put foot on American soil.

  They came out of the rushes onto a large plantation that reached all the way to the high embankment of the Mississippi, into recently harvested cane fields, dry and firm underfoot, divided here and there by fences. In the middle distance stood the planter’s house, surrounded by mature trees and gardens and outbuildings. Some cows and sheep grazed near the far border of the property, but there was not a soldier in sight, nor even a slave at work.

  The Americans had known for many days about the invasion force, its size and location. Jackson had had more good information about the British than they had about him, but now the advance spread out, unseen, unchallenged, to cross the fields that led, like stepping-stones, a mere seven miles to the city of New Orleans.

  Kit, glad he had kept his doubts to himself, went with them.

  Gabriel Villeré had a favorite chair in his father’s parlor, where he settled with a cigar after a solid breakfast. Around him were his hunting dogs, his younger brother Jules, and many of his best friends. An altogether agreeable morning, as the sun had finally come out after a cold and rainy night.

  Villeré tugged at his uniform, which was pretty enough to parade in but damn uncomfortable otherwise. It pinched his neck and made him cross, and he wondered if his friends felt the same but were afraid to say so for fear of sounding soft. A few weeks ago they had sat in this very room, eager to join the militia, to get in on the fighting. Some of them out of patriotism, or curiosity, or just simply for the excitement of it. Gabriel had joined because he couldn’t think of an excuse not to that would satisfy either his father—General Jacques Villeré, commander of the entire Louisiana militia—or his father-inlaw, who was also in uniform and talked a good deal about the honor of shedding blood to protect one’s home and land. His father was a good man, but not a particularly insightful one when it came to his own children. His father-in-law was not quite so enamored and saw Gabriel more clearly.

  But he had put on the uniform, and accepted the rank of major and the assignment that came with it. His responsibilities were few and minor: block the bayous, protect Fisherman’s Village, and keep watch for the British. In return he could sleep comfortably and eat well. The ladies had been sent to Grand Terre, but his closest friends were close by. Really, things could be much worse. He could be with the rest of the uniformed militia on the Bayou St. John in moldy tents, suffering the December night winds off of Pontchartrain.

  Here all he had to do was dispatch a few men to tramp along the canal and bayou as far as the fishing village where Catalan joined Bayou Mazant. The fact that those men hadn’t returned yet seemed nothing to worry about. There had been freezing rain in the night, and they were smart enough to take cover out of the weather. No doubt they would come strolling in before noon complaining of poor food and wet feet.

  What the heir to the Villeré plantation could not put out of his head, though he tried, was the fact that he had not yet sent the slaves to obstruct the canal. Jackson’s reasoning was that the man-made waterways that connected the Mississippi to the bayous and then the Gulf were too tempting for the British to resist. The planters to either side—including Gabriel’s father-in-law to the north—had made a great production out of the whole silly venture. Gabriel had hesitated, though Jackson’s engineer had been by more than once to remind him what the major general expected. What he ordered.

  It grated, to have such a man as a commander. Jackson was a Yankee, after all, and really knew nothing of Louisiana or the way things worked here. To obstruct a canal would be the work of a few days, but to clear it again would take much longer, and as owners of a working plantation, the Villerés depended on the canal. Gabriel most especially depended on it, as he kept busy for most of the year running goods for the Lafittes.

  As if the British would choose such a route into the city to start with, through swamp and bog. They would come in by way of Pontchartrain and the Chef Menteur road. It was the obvious choice.

  “I don’t believe it,” one of his companions was saying in a heated tone. “I won’t believe it until I hear his confession for myself.”

  Gabriel looked down at his younger brother Jules, who had been playing with the dogs while he listened to the conversation.

  “They’re still arguing about Poiterin,” Jules said. “Whether he really is a spy.”

  Gabriel shrugged. “I myself find it hard to believe,” he said, using his elbows to lift himself out of his chair. He opened the lid of a carved walnut box and hesitated over the selection of cigars as he thought of Honoré Poiterin, who was a good man to have at a dinner party. To be seen with someone so daring was to borrow some of his shine, for a short while at least.

  “They say he’s gone to fight for the British,” said Jules, his voice still low.

  “He’s signed his death warrant if that’s true,” said Gabriel.

  Moll ambled over and pushed her nose into his hand. He rubbed her head and started for the door. If he smoked in here, he would have both his wife and his mother to deal with, and it simply wasn’t worth the trouble.

  At the door, Moll went suddenly still. Later Gabriel would remember that one moment as the last peaceful minute of his life, because it was followed by an explosion of wood and glass as the door was kicked open and a company of English soldiers came crashing in.

  It had been a quiet morning, and now it was full of English riflemen in dark green jackets and infantry in dull red. They poured in every door, herding the rest of Gabriel’s men before them until every one of them stood, some still in short clothes, in a huddle in the middle of the parlor.

  Through it all, one thought repeated itself in Gabriel Villeré’s mind: Now it’s done. Now he’ll know.

  One of the younger dogs snapped at a soldier and got a kick in the ribs for his trouble. Jules let out a furious cry and would have rushed forward, but was caught up by a more cautious hand: Pierre Solet, whose sharpest look wasn’t for any of the men who had invaded this house, but for Gabriel himself.

  They were all looking at him, waiting for him to do something. They didn’t understand that Gabriel was incapable of doing anything at all. He had lost the power of speech and locomotion and coherent thought, all replaced by the image of his father’s face.

  Then out of the confusion an officer stepped forward and addressed Gabriel directly. He was Colonel Thornton of the 95th of Foot. His manner was all that was correct and courteous, but his tone was as hard as ironwood. “You are our prisoners, Major—”


  “Villeré,” Gabriel supplied. “Of the New Orleans Militia.” His English was not very good, but he caught the gist of the commands that Thornton spit out, rapid-fire, to men who peeled away to do his bidding. They were all in high good spirits. They had taken the Villeré plantation without firing a shot, and now it would serve as the British headquarters during the battle for New Orleans.

  From the window, Gabriel saw that the entire plantation was crawling with British soldiers. Who had come, no doubt, by way of Lake Borgne, the bayous, and finally an unobstructed Villeré canal. What had happened to the men he had dispatched to Fisherman’s Village? He could not ask, but he could imagine. He hoped they had put up more of a defense than he had.

  As they were herded together against the wall, searched, and stripped of weapons, Jules found Gabriel’s side and stayed close. His eyes, as round and bright as pennies, fixed on Gabriel’s.

  “Do something,” Jules said. And it was clear to Gabriel that he must do something, the one and only thing there was to do.

  Major Gabriel Villeré offered the officers wine and cigars and a seat by the fire. And while he played host, struggling to maintain a polite, deferential tone, his mind, shocked for once out of lethargy, went to work.

  From the veranda, Kit Wyndham watched a feckless Gabriel Villeré move like a puppet from one side of the parlor to another. He looked stunned, as well he should be.

  Kit turned away, glad that Thornton had not asked him to take part in the actual capture of the house. Instead he had been assigned responsibility for dealing with the civilians, most specifically the slaves. It was his job to make them comfortable with this rather drastic change in their circumstances. He was to get any information they could provide, and convince them that while they were now free, their services would be greatly appreciated. The quartermaster would have to see to feeding the thousands of men who were coming, and for that he would need the locals. Thornton would expect a proper dinner tonight, and wine, and a fire. He would call the women who served the table servants instead of slaves, but beyond that they would be invisible to him.

  There were a dozen slaves, young and old, about half of them the ones who worked in the house and kitchen. None of them, men or women, would meet his eye. Fear, disorientation, confusion. Kit spoke to them in a tone he hoped would strike them as friendly without being coercive. Most probably they wouldn’t trust him anyway, and in that they were right. They had been hearing for a long time about what good things the British would do for them, but what reason did they have to believe those rumors? And if things went badly here after all, they would find themselves returned to their owners, and in worse shape than they had been yesterday.

  But he did his best. Kit spoke to the slaves in his own approximation of the local French. He offered them a fair wage for their work, pointed out the quartermaster who would pay them, answered the few subdued questions they asked.

  A younger man, heavily muscled and as broad through the chest as a barrel, was the one to ask the inevitable.

  “And if you British lose? What happens to us then? Will you take all of us to England and give us places to live and work?”

  There was only one possible answer, and Kit gave it. “The Americans can’t stand up to the full force of the British army and navy. You have nothing to worry about.”

  Walking away later, Kit hoped the cook and kitchen helpers would not be among the ones who ran off. A dragoon ran up to him, dismayed to find that the slaves had already dispersed.

  “I wanted you to ask them where the rest of the horses have been hid.” The invasion forces had only enough horses for the officers; the dragoons, for whom a horse was as basic a piece of equipment as a right arm, had had to come on foot like the infantry. They had been hoping to find mounts on the plantations, but if Villeré was any indication, the dragoons would not be mounted at all for the duration of this campaign.

  The dragoons were disappointed, but the rest of the troops were in good spirits. The weather was dry and unusually warm, and there was no sign of resistance.

  “Easy pickings,” he heard one man say to another. “By tonight they’ll have finished with the transport and we can march on New Orleans tomorrow.”

  After the misery of the journey, it all seemed too easy. A dozen of the Highlanders got the quartermaster’s permission to have a look at the levee, where they promptly stripped down and dove into the Mississippi, muddy and cold as it was.

  “Yesterday they couldn’t wait to get out of the wet,” said Quartermaster Surtees to Kit. “Soldiers.” And he shook his head with all the exasperated affection of a father.

  Standing on the levee, Kit surveyed the river and the bordering properties. To the north was Denis de la Ronde’s plantation, with a mansion that had no equal in five hundred miles for beauty or graciousness. De la Ronde intended to transform all of southern Louisiana into a new France, and so he had called his home Versailles. Kit had been invited to an evening party there a few weeks ago, and he had danced with de la Ronde’s daughter, Gabriel Villeré’s young wife. A pretty but easily confused young lady, who had been sent away with the other ladies to safety.

  He was thinking of that pleasant evening, of the wine and card games and conversation, when Kit heard the commotion from the house. He turned in time to see Gabriel Villeré leaping a fence to tear across the fields, one of his dogs running at his heels. Muskets had already come up and began to fire, but it seemed that Villeré could move when the need was on him. He disappeared into a swampy area of trees and bushes that separated this property from de la Ronde’s, and a half dozen of the 95th gave chase, only to come back a quarter hour later empty-handed.

  “And so he’ll carry the tale to Jackson,” said the quartermaster, who still stood beside Kit. “You’ve seen the man. What will he do? Jump up from his dinner to come wave his sword in our faces?”

  And the quartermaster laughed uproariously at the idea of the American military on the offensive. Americans had never been known to attack, not in all the years they had been fighting wars on this continent.

  Kit looked out over the troops making themselves at home in the expanse of land between the river and the swamp, and some of the disquiet of the last day came back to him. But he said nothing to the quartermaster, who was still laughing at his own joke as Kit walked away.

  At mid-afternoon, Jennet showed up at headquarters. Luke heard her voice in the main office and braced himself for some kind of disturbing news; his wife disliked the army headquarters and would never come here unless truly compelled.

  And as it turned out the news was both good and bad. The letter she brought was a shock and a pleasure. And then she told him about Hannah.

  He took a moment to think it all through: His sister was going to help at a field hospital. Not the main field hospital—Luke realized this immediately though Jennet seemed not to; the army surgeons and the doctors from the city would hardly admit her to their number—but some other, smaller affair with no official standing. It made sense, and it made him uneasy, but he could no more forbid Hannah than he could shoot her.

  “And so it’s clear,” Jennet was saying. “If ye must join a company, you should join the Choctaws. That way ye can keep an eye on your sister.”

  “And Ben Savard can keep an eye on me, isn’t that what you’re thinking?”

  Jennet’s mouth tightened. He knew her expression, and it was one that did not bode well. She would have her way, even should it be necessary to spill blood.

  She said, “It is the logical thing to do, and weel ye ken it.”

  Luke thought of the Carolina, where he was expected to report. The ship would be manned mostly by the Baratarians, who were experts in artillery and had supplied their own cannons, guns, ammunition, and black powder. He was uneasy still about this idea, as there were some men from Barataria that he would rather not run into just now.

  He said, “If the Choctaw will have me—”

  Jennet interrupted him. “Ben Savard will see
to it.”

  “Then I’ll talk to Butler.”

  And Jennet’s face blossomed into an unsteady smile that told him just how worried she had been at the idea of his joining a gun crew. She came and put her hands on his chest, went up on tiptoe, and kissed him soundly.

  “Thank you,” she said. “I’ll rest much easier.”

  Luke took a moment he could ill afford to pull her closer and kiss her again.

  “You’ll come back to us,” Jennet said, nipping at his lower lip to underscore her command. “You’ll come back whole.”

  Before he could go find Major Butler, the man appeared before him with an agitated Creole in tow. A planter by the name of Leroux, who had no English but nevertheless wanted to convey something of importance.

  Luke listened for a moment and asked a question, and then reported.

  “Another sighting of British sloops,” he said. “Almost word for word like the last report.”

  Major Butler nodded. “Thank him, will you? And send him on his way.”

  “He also wants to know if the American government will reimburse him for the slaves who run away with the British,” Luke went on. He put this question to Butler without any particular intonation, as if he were asking about the weather. In fact it was nothing new; the wealthy landowners were all worried about this particular point. It went hand in hand with the rumor that Jackson would burn New Orleans before he let it fall to the British, something that the major general roundly denied, but which Luke held was highly probable.

  Butler’s mouth contorted. He said, “Tell him that all reasonable claims will be considered, when the time comes.”

  Luke translated, and then held up a hand to keep Butler from leaving. He said, “A small matter,” and then requested the change in assignment, which Butler agreed to without hesitation. There were far larger things to worry about, after all, such as the shouting from the main office: Major General Jackson in a fit of temper. Butler ran, and Luke followed.

 
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