The Sign of the Serpent by G. T. Ferris


A Story of Louisiana in the Early Eighteenth Century

The two Vidals—the father Captain and second in command at Fort Rosalie, and the son Jean, who wore the stripes of a sub-lieutenant, though his face had scarcely a sign of beard on it yet—paced the parapet of the fort in absorbed talk. Below them rolled the brown flood of the Mississippi, gilded into tawny gold by the setting sun. In the splendor of that glow stood out in bold relief the galley which had arrived from New Orleans that day. Young Jean, who had been absent in the little Louisiana capital for two months, and had received during the visit his commission from Governor Perier, had been a passenger, and was now eagerly listening to the news of the fort.

“It is almost word for word as I tell thee,” said the senior. “’Twas a month since that Monsieur le Commandant sent for Big Serpent to tell him the Governor’s wish, but not, as Monsieur Perier would have chosen to make it, the beginning of negotiation. For all feel that it is not well the Natchez should remain in power so near the fort. But Chopart’s words were like the lash of the slave-whip.

“‘Does not my white brother know,’ answered the Great Sun of the Natchez, ‘that my people have lived in the village of White Apple for more years than there are hairs in the plaited scalp-lock which hangs from the top of my head to my waist?’

“‘Foolish savage!’ said Chopart. ‘What ties of friendship can there be between our races? Enough for you to know that you must obey your master’s orders, as I obey mine.’

“‘We have other lands; take them, but leave the village of White Apple to the Natchez. There is our temple, there the bones of our forefathers have slept since we came to the banks of the Father of Waters,’ pleaded Big Serpent.

“‘Within the next moon comes the galley from the big village of the French. If White Apple is not then delivered to my soldiers, and your people gone, the great chief of the Natchez will be sent down the river, bound hand and foot, to rot in prison. Go. I have spoken,’ and Monsieur le Commandant waved Big Serpent out of his presence.”

“And do the Natchez submit? Will Big Serpent give up their beautiful village? Mon Dieu! It’s a shame! It might have been managed differently hadst thou been made commandant instead of Chopart, mon père.”

“Tut! tut!” said the father. “Chopart may carry his load, and welcome. ’Twould have irked me much to have done the Governor’s will, for, after all, ’tis the sword, not the scabbard, which kills. Warning of treachery and conspiracy has come from White Apple, for thou knowest the old Princess had a French husband and loves his race. Yet her son, the chief, would bleed out every French drop in his veins if he could. I like not the signs, though only five days ago Big Serpent came to Fort Rosalie, and when Monsieur le Commandant flung the report of foul play in his teeth, the chief smiled like a baby in the face of its mother, and answered: ‘Let my brother believe what he sees. On the seventh day hence my people will bring thee more than the tribute due for the time, thou hast granted, and will then give up White Apple to the French.’ Yet Sergeant Beaujean, who has been at the village since, says there are no signs of preparation for departure, and that warriors are pouring in from all the outlying country. We shall know in two days more. In the mean time, Chopart reviles at all advice to keep the garrison under arms, with closed gates and loaded cannon. The insolent calls doubters cowards and old women. My sword should answer that taunt,” continued the grizzled soldier, fiercely, “were it not for a bad example at this time. Big Serpent, though young in years, is as old in guile as the most ancient wiseacre of his tribe. So I fear to have thee go to visit Akbal now, mon fils, for the chief’s brother is sure to be deep in any mischief brewing.”

“Better reason, then,” answered Jean, “to make the venture. Time flies swiftly, and I, surer than another, could go safely and might find a clew to hidden danger. Yet ’tis hard to break bread and play the spy.”

Captain Vidal paced up and down, his features working in doubt, as the new thought forced its way to acceptance. He looked wistfully at his only son. “And thou wouldst go there and pit thy young wits against the Indian’s devilish cunning? Well, it may do! Akbal was ever thy sworn brother and hunting comrade.” So it was arranged without further words, but the father’s convulsive hand-clasp, when Jean, in hunter’s buckskins, bade him good-bye at sunrise next morning, proved how loath he was.

It was ten o’clock when Jean arrived in White Apple, which was about fifteen miles from Fort Rosalie. Eight miles lay through the black muck of a swamp where even the wariest foot and quickest eye found their way with trouble. The foul morass into which the river highlands sloped down on the landward side gave the shortest road. But its profusion of deadly reptile life wriggling and hissing at every turn encompassed the narrow path across the little knolls and tussocks which give the only foot-grip, with no slight peril to a blundering step. An easier route meant nearly double the distance.

Almost the first greeting was that of Akbal, but his manner was distant. He knew of Jean’s long absence, but he asked no questions with the tongue, though his eye was keenly curious.

“I come to chase the buck with my friend once more before the Natchez seek a new hunting-ground,” said Jean.

 “Akbal not hunt to-day,” was the answer, in broken French; “must listen to wisdom of great chiefs in council. They meet even now in the Temple of the Sun. Go; the woods are full of deer and turkeys; but first must eat, for Akbal’s friend much hungry from his walk.”

This hospitable dismissal discomfited Jean, for it seemed to close the gates to further knowledge. The breakfast of venison and sweet maize got no seasoning of cheer in the gloomy looks of the boyish chief. Through the door of the lodge the young Frenchman saw the lines of Natchez warriors stalking through the streets towards the temple, while not a sound arose in the village. All moved as silently as if they were a marching troop of phantoms. Akbal sat patiently as a bronze statue, waiting his guest’s motion to depart.

In the centre of the village stood the temple—a huge, round structure built of logs, now wrinkled with years, and surmounted with a cylindrical roof thatched with swamp-canes, leaves, and Spanish-moss in an impervious mat. It rose twenty feet higher than the tallest lodges, and from one side extended an arched thick-set hedge, embowering a long passage to the adjacent forest, a quarter of a mile away. Here the priests and medicine-men of the Sun were wont to seclude themselves from the rest of the tribe.

The way to accomplish his quest suddenly flashed on Jean’s mind. Once he parted from Akbal, seemingly to plunge into the forest, he could make his way to the exit of the long, bowery avenue, and thence come to the outside of the temple. There, it might be, he could learn all he wished, though with great peril to his life. So when the young chief pressed his hand in a sad and silent adieu, Jean, after a brief push into the tangled brake, fetched a détour, and found himself at the mouth of the passage. Through its dusky green light he moved cautiously forward to a coign of vantage. This he found in the shrinkage of two ill-fitting logs, which gave a space for seeing and hearing.

In the centre of the temple, on a rude stone altar, smoked the unquenched fire which had never died since the natal spark had flamed in a Mexican temple two hundred years before. This half a dozen hideously painted priests fed with fragrant barks and gums. Around them five hundred warriors squatted on the ground, and passed the council-pipe, while the priests mumbled and chanted, and a portion of the sacred band drew forth soft and monotonous music from long reed instruments. A rattlesnake, coiled around the right arm of the chief priest, swayed its crest with an undulating motion to the cadences of the music, and its bright eyes seemed to watch every motion with malign intentness, as if it were the guiding spirit of the council. The braves wore no war-paint, for their expedition was not meant to blazon its own purpose; but their faces, so far as they could be seen through the smoke, were distorted with such ferocity and lust of blood that they could dispense with the help of pigments. And so the priests chanted, and the players played their soft melody, and the high-priest stroked his serpent’s hideous head as it curved and swayed to the rhythm of the tune, while the watching Jean was maddened by the delay and the passage of time and opportunity. At last, perhaps mindful of some signal from the high-priest, the snake darted its full length and struck with open mouth as if at some enemy, Big Serpent arose from the seated ranks.

The Great Sun’s oration to his warriors, spoken in the Indian tongue, was mostly jargon to the listener, but he construed enough of it to unravel the Natchez plot. Under the guise of paying their tribute, they would surprise the fort the next morning.

Jean waited for nothing more, but withdrew swiftly, and dashed into the forest. To reach Fort Rosalie as quickly as possible he took his way again through the noisome swamp which formed so much of the short-cut to the French post. He had found his way well towards the heart of that place of gloom and reptilian life. Inspection of every tuft of grass and weed now made progress slow, and Jean looked forward to a few moments of rest on the hummock twenty feet off which projected from the edge of a canebrake. How lucky, he thought, that he had escaped without detection! On top of this thought came the shock of a challenge, which made his heart leap.

Halte, là!” and the figure of Akbal pushed through the reeds. His gun lay in the hollow of one arm, and from the other hand dangled a silver clasp with which Jean’s hunting-shirt had been fastened, and which he had not missed till this moment. It had been found in the bowery lane near the temple.

“Better Akbal than another Natchez bring this back to his French brother,” he went on, with a note of mockery in his voice. “Jan Akbal’s prisoner; no hurt him; to-morrow set free.”

Quick as a flash Jean’s gun swung to his shoulder.

 “Stand aside, Akbal, or I shoot you dead. It must be that or pledge of free passage.”

The two stood like duellists with levelled weapons, waiting for the word, with stern faces and flashing eyes. This was not the time nor place to remember old comradeship and the rite of blood-brotherhood which had once been solemnized between them. That rite swore them to an undying amity, as if born of the same mother and they had tasted the red drops hot from each other’s veins in testimony. But all this was forgotten. To Jean, Akbal was the barrier to prevent his saving the garrison. To Akbal, Jean was the agent bent on foiling his people’s revolt from French oppression. But though their fingers touched triggers, they did not press them. Perhaps this hesitation would have lasted but a second.

But now Jean heard a whirring noise that disturbed even his tense train of thinking with a cold chill. He dashed his musket butt at something, but it flecked him like a giant whip-lash. A monstrous rattlesnake had fastened its fangs deep in his thigh. Another duellist had stepped to the fore. Akbal saw the snake spring, and was himself almost as swift in leaping the interval. He shook his head as he saw the enormous size of the serpent, which was in the deadliest season of its venom, wriggling with a broken back.

“Much bad bite, but try save Jean,” said he, as he helped him across to the larger hummock. Luckily Jean’s canteen was full of brandy, and this he gulped down eagerly, while the Indian cut away the buckskin from his leg. Two needle-point punctures, to be sure, seemed scarcely worth bothering about, but with an apology, “Knife much hurt, but good,” he plunged the keen-edged blade into the flesh, cutting out the envenomed parts, and followed it by applying his lips and sucking at the wound for a full five minutes.

“Fine weed sometimes cure snake-bite. Big bush over there,” and he danced across the bubbling marsh to a bog-oak with a thick mass of green at its base. The swollen leg and the pain which gnawed through the drowsiness of the working venom told Akbal that there was no time to be lost. Flint and steel quickly struck fire, and steeping leaves and roots he made hot tea and a poultice. So the Indian nurse fought the terrible poison in the veins of the patient all that afternoon and all the night long in the firefly-lit darkness of that evil swamp.

The panther screams, which mingled harshly with the subtler horror of things hissing and splashing in the fetid pools, passed into the dreams of Jean. Copper-colored fiends with serpent heads storming the palisades of Fort Rosalie and shrieking the Natchez war-whoop sank their long curved fangs in the body after the knife had rifled the head. “Mon père! mon père! sauve mon père!” he cried, in his agonized nightmare, and then awoke, clutching Akbal’s arm in a sweat of despair.

“Jan better now, stronger; no more bad dream,” said Akbal, who recognized signs of coming strength; and indeed when daylight struggled into the swamp the color of the French boy’s face had got back its lusty red.

“Come, come, we must hasten to the fort! I am myself once more,” and Jean stumbled to his feet to fall back again with the sore stiffness of his wounded thigh. Then he remembered the meaning of Akbal’s presence with a frown. The comrade-foe dragged the heart out of that look with a word:

“Go soon. Akbal no stop Jan now.” He spoke with a proud sadness and submission in his tone. The serpent omen had come from the Sun God—not even that deadly bite could stop the young Frenchman’s return, and he himself had been but the instrument of duty. So he carefully bound the sore leg, and they started across the boggy waste, Jean leaning on his arm and limping with a determined step. It took long to traverse that quaking and slippery road, and the sun climbed up the sky, and Jean became half crazed with anxiety, for his leg would only do so much work, with all the help of a human crutch.

At last they emerged from the morass and began to climb the upland, toiling on with the fiercest energy of Jean’s tortured spirit. Hark! that was the sound of cannon from the fort, and then they heard the faint crackling of guns. “Too late!” half shrieked Jean Vidal, and he sank on the ground with the reaction, hopeless, helpless, and his face streaming with tears of rage and grief. Akbal dragged him to a sheltered place under a bank, and leaped like a deer up the hill. He believed in the sign of the Sun God, for the rattlesnake was the totem of the Natchez nation. He did not reason, in his simple, superstitious loyalty, that he could have left Jean to die of the serpent’s bite. He only knew that he had been inspired to cure him. Now he believed that the further mission of salvation had been passed from Jean to him, and the French blood in his veins warmed to the dedication. The lives of the garrison might yet be kept from the tomahawk and the torture stake.

The fort was already in the hands of the Natchez when Akbal arrived on the bloody scene. The murdering crew gathered to his assembly whoop, with Big Serpent at their head. He told the story of the supposed miracle with fervent eloquence, and the lives of those who had not already fallen in battle were spared, including Captain Vidal, for these bloodthirsty warriors of the Natchez were pious in their way, and believed the sign of the serpent. Jean Vidal, too, remembered the stroke of that terrible fang with something like superstitious gratitude. Had it not been for that he and Akbal would probably have slain each other where they stood, and every Frenchman in the fort would have been butchered or reserved for a more fiendish death. As it was, Chopart was the only one to suffer execution, and he justly expiated the deeds of a cold-blooded tyrant.