It was nearly sunset when U.S. Secret Service Agent Artemus Gordon climbed into a pirogue for the long, dark trip into the southernmost reaches of the Louisiana bayou. The man in the front of the boat was named Gayonne, a known smuggler, thief, and murderer. It was these skills that Artie was counting on. Where they were heading, only the most ruthless criminals gained access.
For three months now, more than half the large ships attempting to enter Port New Orleans from the Gulf, up the mouth of the Mississippi, had been robbed and sunk. Local sailors believed it was the pirate Jean Lafitte, coming back to take his revenge on a city that had both embraced and detested him. Lafitte, a notorious smuggler and profiteer, controlled virtually all the imports into New Orleans during the early 1800's. A handsome, educated scoundrel, Lafitte broke the hearts of New Orleans's harlots, as well as her ladies of high society. At the end of the War of 1812, Lafitte received a pardon for his piracy, when he fought the British, beside General Andrew Jackson, in the Battle of New Orleans. At first, he was proclaimed a patriot, but in time the city's old guard drove Lafitte from New Orleans, once again labeled as a common criminal.
When Artie arrived to investigate, the locals insisted that a terrifying ghost ship sunk the schooners -- one that looked just like the ship sailed by Lafitte. Artie refused to believe these wild stories. First of all, it was 1877. This was modern New Orleans. Lafitte was reported dead more than fifty years ago. Moreover, when Lafitte's crew plundered a ship, they often left survivors. The pirates that attacked the Belle Star, the Regent, and the Corazan, not to mention a half dozen other vessels, left nothing -- no ship and no survivors. With no more than a handful of absurd stories to guide him, Artie spent two weeks trolling through the taverns, flophouses and clip joints that lined the docks below the French Quarter. In a city known for its decadence, Artie selected only those establishments where murderers and thieves moved freely, confidant that the other patrons had their own reasons for avoiding the authorities.
Hiding behind the disguise of a shady Creole gentleman, Artie softened up the locals with a never-ending supply of bourbon and bravado. Spinning tales to the local barmaids, he painted himself as the outcast son of a plantation owner -- a man who had run through his inheritance and was now forced to trade in stolen goods. Moreover, he claimed to be a high roller, someone who could handle substantial cargoes like the ones lifted from the three large schooners, destined for New Orleans, that had been robbed and sent to the bottom of the Mississippi just days before. He was interested in guns that he could sell and antiquities that he could return to their rightful owners in exchange for large rewards.
In a small, dimly lit tavern, Gayonne listened as the dark-haired stranger boasted of dining with royalty at his family's estate. During the first few evenings, Gayonne kept his distance. While it was obvious the man was crooked, he could also easily be an informant. The Captain had warned him of this possibility. And, he knew better than to take the Captain's warnings lightly. Those who had didn't survive long. The Captain reminded him that the more successful the operation became, the more intense the government's efforts would be to infiltrate and destroy it. Anyone seeking entry into their little venture was to be investigated closely. Heeding this warning, Gayonne watched the man for several days before casually striking up a conversation. In time, though, he found himself sitting at a table with the man, in the very same tavern, discussing their mutual pleasure -- profit.
His name, Gayonne learned, was Phillipe Rebon. The youngest son of a wealthy Creole landowner, Phillipe claimed to have a weakness for brandy, cards and women -- and not always in that order.
"My appetite for the fairer sex, I'm afraid, has created a number of unfortunate situations for my family," he explained. "And, of course, there were a couple of regrettable duels involving the sons of my father's business associates. I can't say I enjoyed killing these men, but when a gentleman is challenged, what choice does he have." Artie paused, measuring the man's reaction to his story. "Let's just say, I became too expensive for my family to keep around."
"So you came to New Orleans," Gayonne responded, encouraging him to continue.
"Oui. I came to New Orleans in search of opportunity."
"Have you found the opportunities you were looking for?"
"Of course," he replied, "but I seem to run through them as quickly as I find them."
"Which has lead you to your present search, Monsieur Rebon?"
"Precisely. I have found, Monsieur Gayonne, that given my background and social connections, I am naturally good at bringing together the right parties with just the right merchandise."
Staring at the glass in his hand, Gayonne responded, "And you think that the three ships that went down near the Gulf may have been carrying such merchandise."
Artie waited for Gayonne to look up at him again.
"I know they were, Monsieur Gayonne, and so do you."
Artie remained in the tavern long after Gayonne had left that evening. At this stage of the game, appearances were everything, so he spent the balance of the night sharing a few bottles with a couple of young, hapless thieves. Although his tolerance for alcohol was certainly greater than these infantile buffoons, Artie used every trick to make them think he was matching them drink for drink. In reality, he drank one shot for every four they consumed. By the shank of the evening, his two young companions were inebriated far beyond their control and babbling information that Artie was certain would be of use to the local constable. When he finally left the tavern and sent them staggering home, it was dawn.
Dawn was perhaps the only time of the day when New Orleans would be described as peaceful. During the daytime, New Orleans's docks and her businesses buzzed with constant activity. At night, noisy revelers filled her restaurants, taverns, theaters and cafes.
God, how he loved New Orleans, Artie thought.
If possible, he would spend every leave here, enjoying the music, the food, the opera. There was no place in the U.S. that compared to New Orleans. He strolled down Rue Bourbon towards his hotel and a few hours of much-needed sleep. In a balcony above him a pretty young girl, quite obviously a harlot, tended to her flower boxes. She looked down at him and smiled, then pulled back a portion of her loosely fitting robe to reveal her long beautiful legs. Artie laughed, yawned, and then shrugged, as if to say she was far more than he could handle on no sleep. She blew him a kiss and went back to her flowers. Just beyond the brothel, Artie turned the corner and walked toward the west end of Rue Royal. A large white gate that opened wide to permit wagons blocked his path. In the driver's seat sat an elderly nun. Behind her were two young novices, surrounded by baskets of food and other provisions. They were obviously heading out to the one of the city's countless slums to tend to the ill and hungry. Artie tipped his hat to the ladies. The elderly nun gave him a cautious look, immediately reminding him how he appeared. Reaching into his pocket, Artie pulled out a wad of bills and placed them in one of the baskets on the wagon. The old woman nodded her head, as if to accept this donation as sufficient penance for the mischief he certainly created the night before. The wagon pulled away, leaving Artie to continue on to his rooms and his soft bed. If his instincts were right, he'd be heading into the swamp in a day or two, and to far less comfortable accommodations.
This very same morning, Henri Gayonne decided that it was safe to make the necessary introductions between his new friend and the Captain. Before this would happen, however, his gut told him to have Rebon followed for a couple days. His spies, an indistinguishable group of carriage drivers, servants and street urchin, kept close watch on Artie as he moved freely among New Orleans's criminal element, buying drinks, asking questions, and purchasing contraband. Three nights later, however, Gayonne received a report that told him that Rebon might not be what he seemed.
Artie knew that he was getting dangerously close to some answers. He also knew he had to get word to Jim. He walked over to the window and pulled back the cotton drape. The sun was setting quickly and activity on the alley below had begun to subside.
One of Gayonne's young spies took up a position in the crook of a large tree outside the window of Artie's suite of rooms on Rue Royal. The boy watched as Artie walked from the window to his wardrobe, where he pulled a large hatbox from the top and placed it on the table in the center of his room. Leaning forward to get a better look, he watched as Artie opened the box and removed a pale grey bird. Holding the animal delicately in the crook of one arm, Artie leaned over the table and jotted a few words on a piece of paper. He then placed this paper in a tube that he attached to the bird's ankle.
With Arabella resting gently in his arm, Artie once again crossed to the window and pulled back the curtain. He cautiously looked down at the cobblestone alley. It was clear. The boy pressed his back hard against the trunk of the tree to avoid detection. Convinced that no one was watching, Artie gave the pigeon a quick stroke on the crown, then set her free. Artie and his young shadow then watched as she climbed into the darkening sky and disappeared from sight.
After Artie left his room for the evening, the boy climbed down from his perch and ran back to the docks where Gayonne sat waiting. He could hardly control his excitement, as he described what he saw. As far as this child knew, only the dark-skinned voodoo priests could handle birds in such a fashion. Gayonne, nonetheless, knew immediately that his ignorant young apprentice was describing a carrier pigeon. He threw the child a coin and sent him on his way. Rebon was obviously not operating alone as he had claimed. Perhaps, he was simply communicating with one of his "interested parties." He might also be an informant, however, or worse, a government agent, who was making reports.
Among Gayonne's faithful informants was a young mulatto named Regine. Miss Regine had deep captivating eyes and long flowing dark hair. She might have been described as pretty except for the scar that ran the length of her cheek -- a parting gift from her past employer. Nevertheless, what she lacked in appearance, Regina made up for in artistic talent. She was astonishingly gifted at capturing a person's likeness on paper. She could sit a few feet away from the subject, and quickly create sketches without raising suspicion. When she returned her drawings of Artemus to Gayonne, he carried them by horse, then boat to the Captain, who smiled the very moment they were unwrapped.
"So this is your potential buyer, Monsieur Gayonne."
"Only if he meets with your satisfaction."
"Well, I'm sorry Gayonne, but you won't be receiving your commission for this sale. You are entitled to a reward, however."
"Do you know of this man, Captain."
"Quite well. This man is a government agent named Artemus Gordon. And, if he is here, his partner, James West cannot be far away."
"What would you like done with him," Gayonne asked.
"Kill him, then find West. Kill them both.
Jim West rode up to the New Orleans rail yard to find his train exactly where Artie had promised it would be. His long journey along the lower half of the river brought little success. The local fishermen told stories of a terrifying pirate ship with tattered sails and busted hull that moved rapidly across the water. They also showed him debris that had washed ashore from its unfortunate prey. Jim never saw the ship, himself. Moreover, the debris left little clues as to how the boats were destroyed. Returning home to their train, Jim hoped Artie had better luck in the city.
Jim entered the private car, poured himself a drink and stretched out on the divan for a brief, well-earned moment of rest. He was contemplating a couple hours' shut-eye, when he heard the bell signaling the return of Arabella. Releasing the hidden panel next to the mantle, Jim reached in and pulled out the carrier pigeon. He then removed the small tube attached by a string to her leg and placed her on the mantle.
"What do you have here for me, girl? Some news from Artie?"
The message, he extracted from the tube, was short and to the point --
It was Thursday night.
By the time Jim returned to the train, Artie had already began his journey with Gayonne. They had traveled by flatboat across the big river, then rode southeast for more than a day, until they reached the edge of a great swamp. According to Gayonne, the rest of the trip would be by boat. Artie was careful to keep an eye out for landmarks along the way, but with each twist and turn, Gayonne took him deeper into the bayou and away from all signs of civilization.
Artemus Gordon was far too analytical to believe in ghosts. It was obvious to him that the "ghost ship" was some type of hoax. He also knew better than to believe that a newly rejuvenated Jean Lafitte was its captain. He was certain that the ship and its crew of thieves were quite real and simply taking advantage of the locals' superstitious nature. Out here, they were traveling among the Cajuns. Driven from the French Canadian Colony, Acadia, by the British, these immigrants created their own special world within the Louisiana bayou. In fact, they spoke their own language. Ghosts and evil spirits were an accepted part of life in bayou country. If a dark force inhabited a section of the swamp, the locals respectfully stayed away.
The trip through the bayou by boat reminded Artie of a great tropical jungle he had once traveled through in Central America many years before. All around them ancient moss-draped cypress trees, red maple and tupelo gum trees stretched out of the water. Perched amongst these trees, he saw white egrets, and long dark snakes coiled around the branches seeking sunlight. Floating freely around these great aquatic trees were fields of water hyacinths and bright green duckweed plants. Beneath the water line below were schools of fish, water moccasins and alligators. In the eastern United States, in an effort to make way for the country's growing population, great natural forests were being cleared everyday and waterways were being diverted. Yet, the bayou remained oddly primitive and very beautiful.
Artie and Gayonne traveled a great distance, listening to nothing but the water beneath them. It was not until they entered a larger channel heading south, that Artie began to hear the sound of civilization in the distance. Ahead of them, on the right, Artie could also make out the faint glow of torchlights. It appeared that Gayonne was true to his word. They were approaching an encampment. Of course, Artie also knew that if there was ever a time to be alert, it was now.
As they reached the next bend of the river, a shot rang out. Before Artie could dive out of the way, a bullet grazed the side of his skull, knocking him into the water. Instinctively he swam away from the boat. From beyond the cluster of trees, a man called out.
"Gayonne, did I get him."
Gayonne scanned the water, but could see nothing.
"I cannot tell."
"Don't worry, my friend, whatever is left the gators will surely take care of. Hurry up, the Captain wants us to get back to the city and wait for West."
* * * * * * * * *
Bess McClennan had spent most of her young life in the Louisiana bayou. She was born on the Mississippi, touching dry ground for the first time in New Orleans. Her parents, Patrick and Margaret McClennan were Irish Immigrants, in search of prosperity. What they found in the Crescent City, though, was a job on the docks for Patrick, and a laundry tub for Margaret. They moved into a tiny house along Annunciation Street in the Irish Channel. Their home was sparse, but it was filled with warmth and affection. And then, the yellow fever struck. Margaret McClennan was among the first to fall. Terrified that Bess would die next, Patrick packed up their belongings and escaped with his five-year old daughter deep into the bayou country. Certain that it was the city that took his poor wife, he would never return there again.
Patrick McClennan wanted only the best for his growing daughter, and even shared with her the skill that set him apart from most of the men around them. He taught her how to read. McClennan was also a practical man, though, and so Bess was taught how to hunt, fish, and navigate the narrow waterways that surrounded their home. When Bess reached her teens, she developed an insatiable curiosity about the world beyond their swamp. Patrick indulged her by telling stories of the people he met on the docks. She loved to hear stories about the riverboat gamblers, mysterious and dashing men, dressed in velvet jackets with ruffled shirts and satin vests. These were men who traveled all over the country on nothing but their wits. They traveled through all the great cities. These were cities that Bess longed to see. Someday, she'd find a man like that -- a man who would take her away from swamp forever.
The years past, though, and Bess found herself easing more and more into the rhythm of the bayou. During the gentle seasons, Bess worked beside her father, trapping, fishing and trading for their food and supplies. Bess may not have been Cajun by birth, but it clearly became her way of life. Then, in the summer of her fifteenth year, Bess' father went fishing alone in the deepest part of the swamp. Reaching into the water to untangle a line, he was struck by a water moccasin. A deep gash across the bite mark showed that he had tried to draw out the venom himself, but it was too little too late. The venom had done its job. He lingered for two days, then on the evening of the third, Patrick McClennan drew his last breath. Bess was now all alone. Although her neighbors offered Bess a home, she insisted that she was old enough to take care of herself, and for the year that followed she proved it. She continued to hunt and fish as well as any of the young men along the waterway. Moreover, while New Orleans remained a mystery to her, there was absolutely no section of the bayou that she couldn't find her way out of -- even after dark.
Her father's best friend, Pierre Chalmain, stopped in frequently to check on Bess and bring her supplies. He was the closest thing to family she had left. Pierre had a son, Lucien, who was just about Bess' age, and hopelessly in love with her. Unfortunately for Lucien, Bess had no interest in him and, in fact, refused to spend a single afternoon alone with the dull-witted young man. Lucien's father had an idea that he was sure would soften her heart towards his son. He would wager Bess that he knew a spot so deep in the bayou that even she couldn't find her way out without help. They would take her there blindfolded, then leave her in a small boat. Lucien would hide in another boat and follow her. When she got sufficiently lost and frightened, he would rescue her and guide her back to their home. Of course, Bess didn't need Lucien to find her way home. On such a clear night, she simply relied upon the stars and her instincts to find her way back into a familiar channel. It was upon entering this channel that she heard a gunshot, followed by a loud splash.
Staying as close as she could to the banks, Bess watched two men, both in small boats. They were leaning over the sides, apparently searching for what or who had fallen in. Bess waited until they pulled away then brought her boat slowly toward the spot where they had briefly anchored.
With each trip under the cold dark water, Artie would regain his senses, if only for a minute, and reach for the surface. He could hear Gayonne's voice and that of another man. And, he knew if they found him, they would fire upon him again. Artie allowed himself to float further downstream until the voices faded. A short distance ahead, he could see where a large tree had fallen into the water. When he finally reached the tree, he barely had enough strength to pull himself within the twisted branches. The next thing he knew, he was being pulled into a boat. Rolling over into the belly of the pirogue, he looked up into the eyes of a lovely young woman.
"Much obliged, Ma'am," he said, reaching for the brim of his hat that had been lost in the water. With this last gesture, Artie closed his eyes and lost consciousness. Bess stared, speechless, at the stranger in the bottom of her boat. He was dressed in a cloak and a shiny black waistcoat. His shirt was ruffled, and as white as the moon, and the vest he was wearing was made of deep burgundy satin. Could it be, Bess thought? It had taken three years, but she found him. Bess had finally found him.
The following day, Jim West sat at a table in the back of Antoine's pretending to be interested in the local paper in his hands. It was getting close to noon, however, and he was beginning to worry. Artie would not have failed to show up unless something had happened. As the lunch crowd began to fill up the dining room, Jim decided to take a look around the Quarter. The bells of the Cathedral rang in the noon hour. It was a beautiful spring day, so shopkeepers, laborers and tourists alike soon filled the grassy knolls of Jackson Square. Jim walked back down Rue Royal to the small inn where Artie a.k.a. "Monsieur Rebon" had planned to stay. As always, Artie left a very rough sketch of his disguise, his location, and the name of his alias on the train, so Jim could track him down. According to its owner, Madame Armand, a rather large French woman, who found Jim far too charming to resist, Monsieur Rebon left two nights before with no forwarding address.
Jim left the inn and walked back towards the docks. Irish and German laborers hauled bales of cotton and huge crates of produce from wagons, then down long planks to the waiting steamboats below. Just beyond the supply ships, sat the great passenger paddlewheel, The Natchez, waiting to unload another group of hopeful newcomers to the city. This was life in New Orleans, and it was inexplicably tied to this river. The pirates who prowled the Mississippi understood this connection. Whoever controlled access to this end of the river controlled the city, and much of the South with it.
Jim decided to head back to the train to check for any messages. He was walking through the open markets, when he found himself looking into a pair of very familiar eyes. A young fair-skinned black woman, an artist, had set out a series of her drawings, along the fence line to sell. One of her drawings immediately caught his attention. It was Artie. He was dressed like a dandy, complete with a ruffled shirt and cane. He had also altered his facial features with a goatee and mustache. There was no question; however, the man in the picture was Artemus Gordon.
Jim stood in front of the drawing long enough to attract Regine's attention. She walked up beside him and asked, with a smile, "Do you like my drawings, sir?"
"Yes," Jim responded, they're quite good. My favorite, of course, is the one you did of my friend here."
Realizing which drawing, Jim was talking about, Regine stopped smiling and took a step backwards.
"No, no, no . . . Miss, don't leave," Jim said as he grabbed her gently by the arm. "I'm truly interested in this drawing, particularly where and when you drew it."
"I don't remember," Regine responded, as she tried to pull away. Just then she noticed that Gayonne had returned. Pretending to be interested in another one of her pictures, he stood close enough to hear their conversation, but far enough away that he did not draw attention.
"Mademoiselle, please, it is imperative that you tell me where I can find this man."
Regine nervously glanced past Jim to Gayonne, who very subtly nodded his approval. Regine paused for effect, then said,
"I cannot tell you where he is right now, but I can show you where I last saw him."
Jim followed Regine down a dirt-filled alley to the back of the tavern where Artie and Gayonne first met. He knew she was probably walking him into a trap, but a lead was a lead. The men responsible for sinking the ships left no survivors. If they had Artie, he didn't have much time. Jim followed Regine through a back entrance. The tavern itself was small, dark and empty, except for an old barkeeper, and an equally weathered barmaid who stood across from him wiping off glasses. As Jim and Regine entered the main room of the establishment, Gayonne walked through the front door with a couple of his friends. Gayonne stopped at the door, but his friends kept walking. His welcoming committee, Jim thought.
Without warning, the first of Gayonne's thugs pulled a bowie knife from the back of his vest and hurled it across the room at Jim. It stuck in the wall just inches from Jim's head. The first man having missed his mark, the second man picked up a chair and came running at Jim. As he swung the chair, Jim ducked and slammed his fist squarely into his attacker's diaphragm. The man buckled over and fell to the ground. The knife thrower seized the opportunity to grab Jim around the throat. He soon found himself flying through the air into a table. With his two attackers sprawled on the floor, Jim turned his attention to Gayonne. He smiled and began to walk towards him. Gayonne returned the smile and pushed open the saloon door beside him. Three new men joined him, this time fully armed. Jim placed his arms up, hands out, as if to show that he was willing to surrender. The men parted to allow him to walk through the door then followed him, guns still drawn. Gayonne tipped his hat to the saloonkeeper and turned to join them. Before he could get through the saloon doors, however, the three startled gunmen suddenly blocked his path. Just as suddenly, the gunmen were thrown back through the door en masse. Gayonne stared in disbelief. Just then, an arm reached through the door and pulled him outside. Gayonne found himself pinned against the wall and staring into the eyes of James West, disheveled, but quite alive. West pulled his gun and placed it under Gayonne's chin.
"We need to talk, my friend," he said. "I believe you can help me locate a friend of mine, Phillipe Rebon."
"Don't you mean, Artemus Gordon, Monsieur West," Gayonne responded.
* * * * * * * * *
When Artie opened his eyes, he found himself stretched out on a cot in a small cabin. He tried to sit up, but was forced back down by the sharp pain in his head. He clenched his teeth and closed his eyes, waiting for the pain to subside.
"Non, Monsieur. You must rest. An inch to the right and that bullet would have killed you."
Artie opened up his eyes to see a very familiar looking young lady, sitting on the edge of his cot.
"We've met before, Mademoiselle?" Artie asked.
"Oui, I fished you out of the swamp last night."
"Of course, the boat."
"I appreciate everything you have done for me, Mademoiselle . . . ," Artie began, then paused, not knowing his guardian angel's name.
"Bess," she said with a big smile. "It's short for Elizabeth. Elizabeth McClellan."
"Bess, eh," Artie said, returning her smile, "An Irish girl with a distinctly Cajun accent. Miss McClellan, I'm grateful for your help, but I have business I must attend to back in New Orleans," Artie continued, attempting to rise from the cot.
"But Monsieur, your head . . ." Bess replied, while at the same time helping him to his feet.
"I know, but I've got no choice. There are lives at stake. Can you help me get back to New Orleans."
"Of course, but I . . ."
"Then let's go." Using Bess to steady himself, Artie headed for the door. Through the door, they stepped outside onto the adjacent dock where Artie discovered they had company. Boats filled with heavily armed men surrounded the dock. At the bow of the closest boat, however, stood a statuesque beauty, dressed like the men around her in trousers with a gun at her hip and a knife tucked in her belt. Her long blond hair was pulled back and her hands were crossed in front of her chest. Scanning the group, it became obvious to Artie that she was in charge.
"Mr. Gordon, you are the hearty sort. Until young Lucien, here, came to tell me about the man Bess fished out of the swamp, I was under the distinct impression that you had met your maker," the woman said.
"I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage, Ma'am," Artie responded.
"Forgive me, allow me to introduce myself, my name is Marie Lafitte, . . . Captain Marie Lafitte."
"Captain Lafitte? I suppose," Artie said, nodding, "that you are going to tell me that you are a descendant of none other than the pirate, Jean Lafitte."
"His sole surviving granddaughter, Monsieur, . . . and the men surrounding me are all descendants of his men. Now, if you would be so kind as to join us," Captain Lafitte responded, pulling the pistol from her waist, and gesturing to the half empty boat in front of him.
"If you insist," Artie replied.
"Miss McClellan, it is probably best for you to join us as well."
Surrounded by armed men, Artie and Bess climbed into the boat.
* * * * * * * * *
With Jim's gun trained on him the entire trip, Gayonne had no choice but to take West to Lafitte's camp. Of course, he failed to tell him that he had already disposed of Mr. Gordon along the way. The gulls flying above the trees told Jim that they were heading south to the Gulf. Jim also began to here the sound of men and machines. They were close. It was time to get rid of Gayonne. "How far are we from the camp?" Jim asked.
"Just ahead," Gayonne replied, pointing due south. Off to his right, Jim saw a twisted old tree, with low branches and roots shooting out in every direction.
"We have a stop to make first," he said.
"What stop, Monsieur? " Gayonne said urgently, turning back to face Jim. "The camp is but a half mile ahead of us. Haven't I cooperated with you Monsieur? You are a government agent, you cannot . . . "
"Kill you? " Jim asked with a knowing smile. "Of course, I could." He paused, enjoying the pure fear on this murderer's face. "But I won't," he added. "You see that large branch right there," he asked, pointing to the old tree.
"Yes," Gayonne hesitantly responded.
Gayonne reached up for the large branch, and grabbed it with both hands. Jim pointed the gun at his head. Understanding exactly what Jim wanted, Gayonne pulled himself up into the branches of the tree.
"Very good," Jim responded, then he pushed their small boat away from the tree.
"But Monsieur West, you can't leave me here. It will be dark soon."
Don't worry, my friend, I'm sure you and the other reptiles will get along just fine."
* * * * * * * * *
Sitting in the front of a boat with Bess, Artie realized he had no choice but to bide his time until they arrived at Lafitte's camp. It was the only way to insure Bess' safety. He leaned over and whispered to her, "Don't worry Miss McClellan, everything will be alright. I promise you."
Artie watched a bald eagle glide along water then climb towards the top of the trees. It was there that he first noticed the tall mast. The Captain smiled when she saw the expression on Artie's face.
"Yes, Mr. Gordon, you've found your ghost ship."
Within minutes, the boats were passing next to the very ship that had been terrorizing the vessels in the lower Mississippi for the past few months. It was just as the fisherman had described. Its sails were torn and its hull was riddled with holes. How was it seaworthy? The answer became horribly clear to Artemus, as they climbed out of their own boats and onto the dock. Artie followed the Captain along the dock to the other side of the ship. A large section of the ship, adjacent to the dock, was pulled open, like a great door, to reveal something even more frightening. Behind the facade of the ghostly pirate ship was an almost exact duplicate of the Monitor. Although he tried, it was impossible for Artie to hide the shock and concern from his face. He knew this ship.
As a young Union Officer, Artie watched the Battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac from the shore of Newport News. The firepower of these ironclad ships was beyond anything that Artie had ever seen before. Hundreds of soldiers from both the North and the South stood on opposite cliffs, mesmerized, watching a great battle over the channel know as Hampton Roads, until finally it appeared that the much smaller, but more maneuverable, Monitor had forced the retreat of the larger and more heavily-armed Merrimac. This was more than just an iron-covered ship, this was sure death on the water.
"Impressed, Mr. Gordon?" the Captain asked. "You are looking at a reproduction of my grandfather's own ship, weathered a bit for effect, but an awfully good replica just the same. And, I see that you recognize the design underneath. Within its turret, I've placed two Dahlgren guns, just like the original, but, of course, we've made a few additional changes to make it more powerful and seaworthy."
"Captain," Artie said, looking at her face, "I have the distinct feeling that we have met before."
"I'm flattered that you remember, Mr. Gordon. I met you and Mr. West in Washington a few years ago. Of course, my name was Ericsson then," she added.
"Mrs. Samuel Ericsson," Artie interjected.
"Very good, Mr. Gordon."
"Your late husband was the son of John Ericsson, the man who designed the Monitor."
"That's right, my father-in-law was a genius. Unfortunately, his pitiful son did not acquire his gifts. My husband's life and his death had very little impact." Marie paused. "Nevertheless, being a part of that family gave me access to certain design information that I acquired after his demise."
Artie stepped toward the ship, then looked up at its mast. At the top, there was a tattered flag with the Laffite crest. "You know," he said, "it takes a woman to truly understand the importance of presentation."
"If I had placed my new ship on the Mississippi without its ghostly mask, I would have instantly attracted the full power of the United States Navy. In the three months it has taken your government to finally send you and Mr. West down here to investigate the 'ghost ship,' I've raised more than two million dollars from the supply ships we've plundered. Of course, now, we're prepared to move on to part two of our plan, so we can dispense with this ridiculous facade. By nightfall, Mr. Gordon, this ship will be returned to her original appearance which, of course, you will agree is terrifying in its own right."
"Mrs. Ericsson, I've actually had the pleasure of seeing your father-in-law's design before," Artie said as he took two more steps towards the ship. "I'm afraid, I don't see where you've made additions."
"The name is Lafitte, Mr. Gordon," Marie snapped, drawing her firearm and pointing it at his face. "Lafitte. The next time you call me Mrs. Ericsson will be the last time you draw breath."
"My apologies, Captain," Artie said.
"Thank you," she said, placing the gun back in her belt. "The changes you are looking for are below the waterline. When my father-in-law designed the Monitor, he first envisioned hydrostatic javelins below the deck. They are fired like cannons, but they travel under the water."
"So the ships you attack have no idea what hits them," Artie added.
"Exactly." Gesturing to one of the men behind them, she continued, "Anyway, I believe, Mr. Gordon, that I have answered enough questions for now." With those words, Artie was clubbed from behind. Bess, who was standing a few paces behind them, tried to run to his aid, but Lucien restrained her.
"Now, don't worry my dear, I can't imagine that this is the first time that thick skull of his has taken the butt of a gun." Lafitte's men drug Artemus towards the main building at the end of the dock. Marie stood for a moment, watching them and thinking, with Gordon in her possession, West couldn't be far behind.
Turning back towards the ship, she continued to watch her men strip away it's old wooden cloak. One of the men approached and spoke to her, "Captain, we'll have her loaded and docked next to the others by nightfall."
"Thank you, Robert," she responded, then waiving her hand, she sent him away. Marie enjoyed her new title and the power that came with it. The men around her were prepared to fight to the death by her side. This pleased her greatly. At first, she bought their loyalty, but as the months went by Marie earned it, as well. She promised them wealth and an opportunity to be part of something much bigger than even her grandfather had ever delivered. These men, disenchanted by the loss to the North, were searching for a new leader, someone who could deliver. They found it, surprisingly enough, in this beautiful, but fierce woman.
She was born Carolina Marie Borden, the only child of Jean Laffite's illegitimate daughter, Margaret Borden. Her grandmother, Caroline, the daughter of a powerful Louisiana politician, hid the disgrace of her illegitimate child by marrying a drab older industrialist from New York named Stewart Ashton. Ashton adored Caroline and accepted her, even with the knowledge that she was carrying another man's child. Because of this, Margaret spent her entire childhood believing that Stewart Ashton was her father. Then, her mother, in a moment of sorrow over the loss of her one true love, told the young woman that her real father was a Creole pirate named Jean Laffite. Horrified at her mother's disclosure, Margaret persuaded her husband to take a Treasury Department position in Washington D.C. She never spoke to her mother again.
Carolina Marie, named for her grandmother, learned of her family's dark secret, shortly after her parents' deaths. By this time, she was the young society wife of Samuel Ericsson, living in Washington D.C. The war with the South was coming to a close. Marie's life was filled with charity functions and loathsome dinner parties where the conversation always lead to a discussion of how the benevolent North would bring it's troublesome South back into the fold. Although she always maintained her proper demeanor, Marie hated her life in the Capital, and so she began to make plans. Somehow, she would return to the home of her ancestors in the South. Cunning, ambitious and resourceful, Marie would find out all she could about the man named Jean Laffite, and the life she might have had.
Within days of the death of her husband, Carolina Marie Ericsson secreted away her money and left Washington D.C. in the dead of night. Among her bags was a satchel filled with the plans for her father-in-law's deadliest weapons. Marie returned to New Orleans, but avoided her mother's family. Instead she took up private rooms on Rue Bourbon. Assuming the name "Laffite," Marie knew that it was only a matter of time before she drew attention. The old sailors found their way to her one-by-one, if no other reason then to satisfy their curiosity. They brought with them incredible stories of her grandfather. In time, these men brought their sons and their grandsons to meet her. These men were disillusioned southerners with no money and no future. They would become her army.
* * * * * * * * *
Jim decided that an approach from the larger channel was probably too dangerous, so he steered his small boat directly into the tightly drawn tree line, dodging the roots and young branches that poked up from the water below. Finally, up ahead, he could make out the back of a large building -- a house. He approached it cautiously, then scaling a tall tree, he entered through a window on the second floor. The interior of the building was far more luxurious than one would expect from its faded exterior. The walls were cloaked with rich fabric and tapestry rugs covered its floors. He crept along the upstairs trying each door, until he finally found one slightly ajar. It was a bedroom, with elegant furnishings carved from the finest cherry wood. Jim immediately noticed the beautiful woman sitting quietly at her dressing table.
Marie recognized Jim West, the moment he entered her room. She remembered him well from the Capital. Undeniably handsome and charming, James West was everything she imagined her grandfather had been. He was a leader among men, and the women flocked around him, as they had Jean Laffite. Marie watched Mr. West at parties in Washington. He remained modest and polite, as others celebrated his incredible feats of bravery.
When the woman turned to face Jim, he thought he saw a momentary expression of pleasure. This look, however, was quickly replaced with one of exaggerated shock and fear.
"Who are you?!," she cried out. "What are you doing in my room?!" Jim darted across the room and grabbed the woman, placing his hand over her mouth to muffle another scream.
"I mean you no harm, Miss," he said softly. "Now, if you will promise me that you won't yell out, I'll take my hand from your mouth. I'm trying to locate a friend of mine. I did not mean to intrude on you. I thought I would find him here in this . . . house. Are you alone?" Jim pulled his hand slowly away to reveal her, almost irresistible, red lips. "I'm very serious, I mean you no harm. Can you tell me your name?"
"Marie," she responded.
"Marie, my name is James West. I'm searching for a friend of mine. A man with dark hair named Phillipe Rebon."
"They don't allow me to move about unattended outside of the main building, here, but I did see two of the Captain's men dragging a dark haired man towards the cold storage locker," said Marie.
"The Captain? Who is the Captain, Marie?"
"Why, Jean Lafitte," she replied.
"Someone is telling you fairy tales, Marie. The pirate, Jean Lafitte has been dead for years. Help me find my friend, Marie, and I'll take you out of here, if that is what you want."
"Oh Mr. West, I never thought I'd find a way. How can I thank you," said Marie, as she wrapped her arms around his neck.
"May I make a suggestion," replied Jim just before he kissed her.
When their lips parted, Marie kept her eyes closed for a moment. "You know, Mr. West, you're even better than your reputation." Within seconds, Jim found himself surrounded by armed men, including a very angry and wet Gayonne. Marie stood and pulled a derringer from the sleeve of her dressing gown. "You must remember, Mr. West, that things are not always what they seem. Sometimes the damsel is not in distress."
Jim took a step backwards, preparing for a fight.
"Now, Mr. West," Marie spoke, "I recognize that you have remarkable survival skills. In fact, I bet even with all these guns pointed at you, that you could do a great deal of damage to my men and this room, before we killed you. I want you to know, however, that such behavior could prove fatal to Mr. Gordon."
Just then, Gayonne stepped forward. "Captain," he said, "do you want this one to join his friend?"
"Captain? " Jim queried. "So, you're the blood thirsty pirate Lafitte. I didn't recognize you under all that silk."
Marie Lafitte smiled at him, then turned to her men. "Gentlemen, take Mr. West downstairs to his friend." Looking back at Jim, she added, "I'll rejoin you Mr. West as soon as I change into something more appropriate."
Encircled by six armed men, Jim traveled down the staircase to the front entry. To his right a door opened, and two men led Artemus into the room. His head was bandaged and he appeared unsteady and exhausted. When Artie looked up and saw Jim, he responded immediately to his unspoken question.
"I'm O.K. Did you recognize our hostess?"
"No, why?" Jim asked.
"Think Washington society pages and the Monitor."
"Mrs. Ericsson, . . . Mrs. Samuel Ericsson. Now, I remember her," Jim replied.
"And guess what she's got docked outside?" Artie continued.
"Artie, the Monitor went down off Cape Hatteras years ago."
"Well, Jim, she's got an awfully good replica out there."
Marie entered the room from the top of the stairs and all the men turned to watch her.
"I have an even bigger surprise for you, Mr. Gordon. Gentlemen, before we send Mr. West and Mr. Gordon to the bottom of the bayou, I think they've earned the right to a few answers," she said.
"You mean you're more than just greedy crooks? " Jim responded.
"Oh, but we're much, much more, Mr. West. Allow me to show you both." Following Marie, they walked out the front door and down a long dock. What they found at the end of the dock left them both speechless. Anchored side by side at the end of the dock sat three ironclad ships.
"That's right gentlemen, count them. You are looking at four of the deadliest battleships on the ocean. They were secretly manufactured for me in Europe. In the holds of these four ships, I've got enough gold to construct ships four and five. Soon, with my fleet of deadly ironclads, I will control all access into the southern and eastern coast of the United States. This is beyond anything my grandfather would have even imagined, let alone accomplished. Do you see the ammunition shells stacked at the end of the dock there," she asked. When my father-in-law's Monitor was used during the Civil War, the captain was under strict orders not to fill the shell with anymore than a half load of gunpowder. These cowardly, dim-witted men were so afraid of causing an accident, they never really got to see the true fire power of this ship."
"And all those shells," Artie responded, "are filled to the top with gun powder."
"That's right, Mr. Gordon. If one of those shells had struck the side of the Merrimac it would have been a very short battle."
A young man climbed from the first ship and ran up the dock to the Captain. "Captain Laffite," he said, "we're ready to load the armaments."
"Very good," she responded, "bring the first ship flush with the dock here, so you can move quickly." Returning her gaze to West and Gordon, she continued, "We need to launch right away. We can't take a chance that these two gentlemen left our location with someone else. Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me. Monsieur Gayonne, send them to the bottom of the swamp." Stopping to fix her eyes on Gayonne, she added, "and if you mess up the job this time, I'll send you to the bottom myself."
"Consider it done, Captain," Gayonne responded. "This way," he said, pointing to a long dock.
"Artie," Jim spoke under his breath. "I think a brisk swim may be in order."
"You realize that there are alligators and poisonous snakes in that water," Artie softly replied.
"Yeah," Jim said, "but the ones out here are carrying guns."
"Good point," Artie said. "After you."
In the time it took for Gayonne to take two steps, Jim had him by his gun arm. Jim knocked the gun free and hurled him into the water. Jim and Artie then ran for the edge of dock and dove in -- a barrage of bullets flying above their heads. Through the cold dark water they swam, until they reached dry land. Jim pulled an exhausted Artie onto the bank next to him.
"You know, Jim, this is the second time in twenty-four hours that I've had to dive into that stuff."
"Artie," Jim said, as he pulled off his jacket and his soaking wet shirt, "we're going to have to go back and destroy those ships."
"I was afraid you were going to suggest something like that," Artie replied. "The question is how," he added, as he painfully sat back against a tree.
"Can you swim?" Jim asked.
"Can you think of any other way that we're going get back over there?" responded Artie.
* * * * * * * * *
Bess stood perfectly still, while the Lady Captain stormed back and forth on the dock, in front of her, yelling at the man they called Gayonne.
"Because of your complete incompetence," she raged, "I have to move everything tonight, . . . the gold, the ships, everything!"
Pointing towards the house, one of the men asked, "Do you want us to start removing the furniture in there, Captain."
"No," she responded. "There's not enough time. Who knows how long it will take West and Gordon to get back here with help. Just burn it, burn it all."
"What about the girl," he asked.
"Put her in one of my dressing gowns and tie her up inside," she ordered. "It might slow them down a bit if they find a woman's body in the ruins." With this final remark, Marie Lafitte turned and began to walk back up the dock. After a few steps, however, she stopped and turned.
"I almost forgot," she said. "Gayonne?"
Bruised and soaking wet, Gayonne jumped to his feet. "Yes, Ma'am," he replied. Marie pulled the gun from her holster and shot him once in the chest. Gayonne grabbed his chest, and looked at her in shock. Marie walked forward until she stood no more than a foot in front of him, where she leaned in and spoke softly.
"I told you that if you messed up again, I'd send you to the bottom of the bayou." Then with a quick shove, she pushed him into the water.
From beneath the dock, Jim and Artie watched as Gayonne's body hit the water. Hanging onto the moorings, they waited until Captain Lafitte and her crew left, leaving a solitary sentry to watch the dock.
"Jim, look at the way the ships are docked right now," Artie said.
"Yeah," he replied.
"Do you remember listening to Ericsson speak in Washington about the construction of the Monitor," Artie asked.
"Do you remember when he talked about the underwater cannons?"
"Absolutely. He called the shells, hydrostatic javelins."
"That's right," Artie responded, "she built them into these ship."
"Which means the javelin cannon from that ship is pointing at the other two ships, right now," Jim replied.
"Exactly. Look Jim, the girl, one of us has to get her out of that house before its too late."
"Go Artie. "I'll fire the cannon."
Jim pulled a piece of loose wood from the bottom of the dock and threw across to the other side. It clanged against the hull of the first ironclad, sending the sentry to investigate. Artie climbed onto the dock and ran towards the house, while Jim swam around to the other side of the ship. The sentry crept along the top of the ship looking for the source of the noise. Jim scaled up the side of the ship and waited until the man stepped forward. Then, with a quick movement, Jim reached up and grabbed him around the legs. The man slammed into the side of the dock, then unconscious, he dropped into the water below.
Jim climbed onto the boat, making his way to the hatch, just behind its gun turret. He carefully lifted the hatch and peered below. Two other crewmembers were working inside. One of the men walked under the opening to see why the hatch had been lifted. Jim pounced on him. Leaving this one on the floor, he turned his attention to the other sailor who was reaching for a gun. Before the other man could pull his weapon, though, Jim grabbed him by the shirt collar and rammed him into the side of the inner hull, dropping him like a rock.
From the window, Artie could see Bess tied to a chair inside. Lafitte's men were walking through the house, taking torches to everything. If he was going to get her out of there, he needed a diversion. Marie came down the stairs carrying a gold jewelry box. Pushing the window open just a bit, Artie masked his voice then yelled at the top of his lungs.
"Captain, I found them. Hurry."
Marie and her men stopped in their tracks. She gestured towards the door, "Go on, this is fine." As they rushed out the front door, Artie climbed through a side window and ran to Bess. "Let's get out of here, kid," he said, as he untied her.
Jim positioned two explosive devises, set to go off within 10 seconds of one another. The first device would fire ship's javelins into the hull of its sister vessels. The second device, positioned next to stack of shells, would hopefully turn this first ship into an inferno.
Marie Lafitte stood in front of the burning building looking for the crewman who had located West and Gordon. She looked out onto the boats, just as Jim climbed through the hatch of the closest one.
"West!" she cried out. "He's on one of the ships!" Marie and her men ran for the ship, firing at him.
Jim's exit to the dock was blocked. He had no choice but to leap to the second ship.
Stepping onto the first ship, Marie turned to her men. "Allow me," she said. Lifting her revolver, Marie had him in her sights. Just then, the cannon fired, and Captain Laffite disappeared into a cloud of smoke and shooting flames. Grabbing a pole used to tie off lines from the docks, Jim vaulted to the third ship, barely avoiding the explosion and flames. The final explosion catapulted him from the deck of that ship into the deep water. He swam as far away as he could before heading back up toward the surface, where someone in a boat tried to grab him by the arm. His instincts took over and he lunged for his attacker. He shoved him to the bottom of the boat, then realized it was Artie. Behind them, flames and smoke reached high into the sky. The effect was both terrifying and breathtaking. Jim grinned at Artie, then letting him up Jim looked at Bess.
"O.K., so do you have any idea where we are," he asked.
"Not a clue," Artie replied, laughing in relief.
Bess picked up the oar. "Relax, gentlemen," she said. "I'll get you home."
They turned to head back to civilization, while beneath them in the dark waters of the Louisiana bayou almost one million dollars in gold poured through the busted hulls of the burning ships -- sunken treasure once belonging to the famed pirate, Marie Lafitte.
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