Bow-shooting on the St. John's
Part 1 of 2
ALL day long we had been going at a snail's pace on the brown, placid surface of the St. John's River, not unfrequently having to resort to the oars to help our shoulder-of-mutton sail out of a dead calm. The sky was clear, and the sun had been shining with a power not usual even in Florida, which, connected with the fact that we had not seen a live thing since morning-a few ducks flying overhead excepted--had made the time wear slowly away; and it was with a feeling of pleasant relief that, just as the moon began to struggle with the twilight, we turned into a lazy little creek between high walls of trees, and, by a short run, found a fine camping place on the south bank.
Cesar, ever on the watch to do something clever, had stowed away in the boat's little hold a pile of pine-knots; with some of these he soon started a bright fire, by the light of which we pitched our tent and made ready for the night. Will and I oiled and rubbed our bows, and assorted our supply of arrows for the morrow's sport, while Caesar broiled some bacon and a large trout (bass) for our supper. The moon, though but a crescent, shone brightly enough in the open places; but our tent was in a place of dense shade, and our flaring fire did fantastic work as it dashed its tricksy light among the great tree-trunks and vines and pendent mosses, and shot it across the creek in long, tapering fingers that caressed, in a weird way, the tall aquatic grasses and the matted lily-pads. Just the faintest swashing sound came up from the borders of the stream, to mingle with the voice of the pines, a clump of which crowned a little swell to the south-ward. Overhead mighty live-oaks spread their boughs, hung here and there with long curtains of gray Spanish moss.
"How hungry one gets with a few hours' fast in the open air!" said Will, munching a cracker. "How delightfully aggravating the smell of broiling bacon! I believe this sort of life has a tendency to make an animal of a man! Why it's all I can do to restrain an impulse now to whinny for my food like a hungry horse!"
"And the coffee, too," said I, feeling the fascination of the subject-" and the coffee, too, sends out a most persuasive odor."
Caesar rolled his big white eyes in our direction, and suggested that as for him, he was literally starving for a baked 'possum. Broiled bacon was a snare and a delusion, and fish was dry food at best. We all did ample honor to the supper, however, and, after a pipe, we sought rest. Caesar and Will took their respective places in the tent, but I swung my hammock between two trees, and, as was my custom, placed my bow and quiver along-side of me.
My big hound, brought with me from Jacksonville, came and curled himself into a knot right under me, and was soon snoring away most resonantly. The breeze, which had freshened a little since dark, was strong enough now to blow away the few mosquitoes, and I soon fell into a sweet sleep, with a cluster of stars looking down at me through a rift in a dense mass of vines and foliage above. Indeed, so calm and refreshing was my slumber that it seemed I had scarcely dozed when I was startled by a terrible rush made by the dog, the noise of which was mingled with the falling of the tent, and some profound anathemas by Will and Caesar as they struggled out from under the collapsed canvas.
I snatched my bow and quiver and leaped to the ground just as the hound began to whine most piteously in a bay thicket a few yards off. An animal of some sort was punishing him severely, and the peculiar cry of a catamount at bay left no doubt as to what it was. The tent had been hastily and insecurely pitched, and the dog, making his rush at the cat, had brought it down about the cars of my companions. Snuffing a smell of fun in the air, I sprang into my rubber boots, buckled on my quiver and pistol, strung my bow, and in much less time than it takes to write it, was plashing through the water in the direction of the dog, which was now baying loudly, evidently keeping at a respectful distance from his enemy. When I had almost reached the spot they made another break, and away they went, the dog mouthing broadly at every jump, making the sober old woods ring with the stirring music.
I tore after them through the slush and brush, cheering them lustily. Will and Caesar followed, as I could tell by their loud shouts. A run of a half mile brought me up with the hound. I found him barking and snapping savagely in the centre of a circular tuft of water-bushes, on the top of a clump of which I saw the catamount in a crouching attitude, its eyes flaming, its hair erect, and its claws spread, the very picture of fury. I was within forty feet of it before I was aware of the fact. I recoiled before the glare of its fierce eyes. The animal really looked twice its natural size. My nerve came to me in a moment, however, and I hastily made ready for a shot. Fixing a broadheaded arrow to the string, I centred my gaze full in the face of the cat, and drew steadily till I felt the barb touch my left knuckles-this told me I had put on a weight equal to eighty pounds-and then I let go. No doubt I was a little excited, but I did not make a bad shot. The arrow struck the animal's car, and cutting across the back of its neck passed through the point of its shoulder. You have seen a flying-squirrel spread itself out as thin as a bit of buckskin, and sail slowly off from the top of a tree. Well, like a huge flying squirrel, wounded, infuriated, terrible, that catamount transformed itself into a monster bat, and sailed right out into the air towards me. I shall never forget the appearance of the thing's eyes, as it shot level along the tops of those scrubby little trees, some-what lower than my head. Of course it fell short of me, but, for the second or two that it remained in the air I was sure it would strike me full in the face. As it crashed down through the bush I took to my heels, and fled ignobly until I gained an open space. The dog followed me, with the huge cat charging at his heels. I let go another shaft, but in my haste made a clear miss. The hound, emboldened by my stand, turned now and began snapping at his pursuer. At this moment Will reached the ground and lodged an arrow in the cat's flank, while it was so close to me that I shot it twice with my pistol, being unable to use my bow. The dog gave it a yank or two, and Will got another arrow in about the middle of its long body. This weakened it somewhat, and gave me a chance to mile a centre-drop with a round-point right through its shoulder. Caesar rushed in at this juncture and closed the tragedy by a few tremendous blows with a long pine knot. Although the catamount was an enormous one, I am surprised whenever I think of the sturdy fight he made.
After a few moments given to discussing the battle, Caesar proceeded to get up a light and skin our victim, while a big owl hooted a doleful requiem in a dense jungle of cypress and rubber hard by. When we returned to camp we were too much stirred up to sleep, so we had an early breakfast, and by the first glimmer of daylight we went aboard, heading our boat up the creek. By ten o'clock we had reached a little lake covering some hundreds of acres, rimmed round with live-oaks here and cypress there, and dotted with lettuce-islands and stretches of lily-pads. We saw a large number of great, snowy herons flapping about in the distance, a few great blue herons, and many of the lesser fry of the same interesting family. I had never killed a snowy heron, nor had Will, and this little expedition had been fitted up for the purpose of bagging some. We had boasted to a friend or two that we would never return till we came well loaded with plumes. Few persons, not sportsmen or naturalists, can fully understand the peculiar difficulty of our self-imposed task. Even an excellent woodsman (and a trained sportsman though he be, and armed with the best fire-arms) can rarely, by any cunning, get within long range of these beautiful birds. How much more difficult, then, for us, armed with the long-since discarded weapons of antiquity, to approach the wary game! But the apparent improbability of our succeeding made the undertaking the more attractive, for we loved our weapons, and had all confidence in our craft and marksmanship. We had brought two small sectional skiffs with us, just large enough to bear one man. In these we proposed to offer battle to the snowy herons. We found a delightful camping-spot near the southeastern shore of the lake. Here we pitched our tent, and also constructed a large shed or open lodge, which we thatched with palmetto-leaves. Over this camp we left Caesar to rule supreme, and having made everything ready, we put out, early on the second morning, each in his skiff, with a day's rations and a full case of light barbed-arrows and a dozen or so of heavy brad-heads. We took different courses. Mine lay to the northwest of our camp, up an arm of the lake, which here received a sluggish runlet, across the mouth of which, in very shoal water, a huge mass of lettuce had drifted. On either hand some tall old cypress trees stood with their knees just above the water, and a little farther west a stretch of great aquatic weeds ran in a narrow line parallel with the shore, leaving just enough channel to receive my skiff. In this place I anchored, finding the water only four feet deep in the middle. I quietly settled my theory for shooting herons, and was now about to test it by a practical experiment. On the day before, I had noticed that two fine snowy fellows made it convenient to alight on a certain bare, dead tree about sixty yards distant from where I had thus stationed myself. This they had done so often and regularly that I suspected they had established their resting-place and point of lookout midway of their flight from one extremity of the lake to another.
I hoped, thus shielded by the line of tall grass and weeds, to get a shot or two. I lay down in my skiff, my head resting on a roll of moss, and having lit my pipe, contentedly waited and watched. A pleasant breeze was sweeping the lake, making a soft rustle in the weeds, while over in the woods a little way a cardinal-bird, so seldom seen in Florida, was singing his shrill, cheery song. So sweet it was to rest there, with the wind pouring over me and the water washing under, that I cared little whether a snowy heron ever flew my way or not. I was absorbing health and dreamful bliss through every pore of my body, and the blue wreaths from my pipe, as they floated upward and away, ring fading after ring, were enough to en-gage my whole attention.
But presently a small alligator thrust his ugly nose out of the water hard by, and a big moccasin snake glided along the slimy edge of the weeds. Then a snake-bird, a foul, funny biped, dropped into the shoal, coffee-like liquid of a miniature lagoon, twisting himself into a thousand ludicrous contortions, till he looked like nothing but a neck tied in a double bow-knot. Once I saw, dimly, far across what seemed leagues of sheeny water, a young deer, scarcely small enough to be called a fawn, slip like a shadow through an opening and disappear, the merest hint of what the forest might hold. Now and then a swell from the lake, which the breeze had shaken up, came round into my retreat and rocked me gently, as if the happy water with its finger-tips was barely able to reach me. Sparrow-hawks wheeled about overhead, giving cut their peculiar cry, and a little green-winged warbler lit on the feathery tip of a grass-leaf, balancing himself adroitly, and rocking to and fro with his quizzical eyes turned down at me, twittering all the time a monotonous round of three or four notes. Somewhere, far in a dark recess, of course, a big owl, with a voice that revelled in the lowest possible register, was doing a solo that ended in a wild, maniacal laugh.
I lay there for perhaps two hours, revelling in the quietest of all contentment, and was aroused at last by a snowy heron flying so low and so near me that I fancied I felt the air wafted from his broad-spreading wings, the satin-like sound of which filled my cars with music. I could have killed him on the wing had I been ready. But there lay my bow unstrung, and there I lay stretched out in my boat. I got myself rapidly and noiselessly into position, and strung my bow. As I had hoped, the bird rose as he neared one of the dead trees, and alighted on a high, broken branch, making it quiver with his weight. I had a fair view of him through a notch-like rift in the wall of grass and weeds, and, actually trembling with excitement, I drew to the head and let fly. What a wild shot! the arrow sang through the air high above him, missing him fully ten feet! Contrary to my fears, he did not take to wing, but simply turned his head to one side and glanced at the arrow as it passed. He did not dream of my proximity. Again I let go, this time cutting the air close to his beautiful neck. He jerked his head, but did not move a wing.
What a glorious weapon the long-bow is! I must say it, and say it often, and urge it strenuously, this is the most delightful of the sporting implements. There I was within sixty or eighty yards of a great snowy heron, with two shots at it, and still it sat there! What if I had been armed with a rifle? The first shot would have frightened the game into a spasm of flight! But there he sat, all unconscious of me, till I shot twice, thrice, four, five times, the arrows whisking past, tipping the outmost down of his feathers and rounding over to drop with a sharp cluck into the lake beyond. My arm had got steady now, and I drew my sixth arrow with great confidence, my eyes fixed on the butt of the great bird's right wing. It was a shot to delight the gods. The dull recoil-sound of my bow was followed by a quick whisper, and then a dead, solid blow, a "chuck" once heard never forgotten. The feathers puffed out and sailed slowly away in a widening ring. The big wings opened wide and quivered a moment, then the grand old fellow toppled over and came straight clown with a loud plash into the water. I yelled like a savage-I couldn't help it; it stirred me to the core.
I hastily weighed my little anchor, but none too soon, for I saw two alligators, with their rusty noses out of water, striking out for my bird. If ever a man mule a skiff fly I did that one. The very thought of losing my bird infuriated me. I reached it first, and the alligators began swimming round in a circle. I gave one of them a bodkin-point in the throat, causing him: to turn some wonderful somersaults and to beat the water into a stiff foam. I lifted my snowy heron into the skiff. It was a magnificent bird, full-plumed and in perfect health.
It was now noon, and, feeling hungry, I rowed to a palmetto-point a quarter of a mile east, and went ashore to broil a slice of bacon. I had just started a little fire of palm-leaf stems when Will joined me, having seen me land. He had killed a young swamp-rabbit, which we dressed and roasted, finding it a most toothsome bit. My bird was too much for Will. He stripped a side from one of the wing feathers and bound it to an arrow, in token of a vow not to leave the lake till he, too, had bagged a snowy heron. I frankly told him that, if he stuck to his vow, I thought he would live to be eighty and die on the lake with-out accomplishing his very sportsmanlike desire.
After a rest of two hours, we again separated, each choosing his way and going off full of dreams of the snowy heron. But I got into a raft of duck and came near shooting away a whole case of arrows at them with miserable luck, only killing five. I returned to camp before sundown, finding Caesar highly delighted. He had seen a flock of wild turkeys. I set him to work immediately skinning my bird, a thing he could do to perfection. Will came in after dark, with a rail and two or three beautiful wood-ducks, but no heron. He was gone next morning before I was awake. As for me, when I was awake, I did not get up, or rather down, but lay there swinging in the breeze, caring for nothing but comfort. I made Caesar bring me a cup of coffee and my pipe. I hung over the side of my hammock and sipped the rich brown beverage till its cheering effect tingled in every nerve from lip to toe; then I let fall the cup and took the pipe to smoke off the influence of the coffee. I dropped to sleep again with the amber between my lips. Some time later I was startled by Caesar, who began a loud shouting all of a sudden.
"Oh, lookee! lookee He's after 'em, he'll git 'em, shuah! Lookee lookee! golly! ki! Lookee, mars, he's after 'em! J'ruselem! but don't he pull dat boat for de Lor' sake! Dat's jis as good as his bird right now! Lookee lookee!"
The excited negro was prancing around like one possessed, pointing out on the lake, and it needed but a glance to see what he meant, for there, mid-way in the rippling sheet of water, was Will in full chase of a snowy heron, which was evidently very sorely wounded. I had only to lie there and watch the sport. The bird, which, as I afterwards learned, had been stricken through the wing between the bones without breaking either, held out bravely, flapping along on the water at a good round rate of speed. Will would row awhile, then drop the oars and shoot. Finally he bowled it over and dragged it into his skill. As I expected, he yelled like a steam-whistle as soon as he handled his bird. I took another cup of coffee, and was sound asleep again when he came in. His prize was not so large as mine, but its plumage was even finer. In the afternoon, having "caught up "my lost sleep, I pulled out again, and had some rare luck; for although I did not even see a white heron, I killed a blue one of enormous size, and made a charming, shot, knocking over a black woodpecker from my skiff high up in the boughs of a pine tree on shore.