Three weeks of savage life
Part 1 of 2
IMAGINE a great, square-shouldered, half-nude savage, whose features betokened stolidity, cruelty, cunning, and maybe dishonesty, if nothing worse, standing in the middle of a long, slim shell of a pirogue, the thin gunwales of which were already nearly on a line with the water's surface; then think of a pretty stiff breeze blowing and the white-caps running glibly, and connect all with the idea of step-ping off a staunch sail-craft plump into the canoe alongside of the Indian, knowing that from that moment you would not get a glimpse of a white person for three weeks, at the very least! I felt my flesh make a movement as if preliminary to disintegration, and for a moment I vacillated. In fact, my first impulse was to utterly refuse to trust my precious body to the mercy of wind and wave and all the man-eating sharks in San Lucie Sound.
Berkley no doubt discovered my trepidation, for he bustled about the half deck of his little schooner, giving orders in a loud tone to have me translated bag and baggage into the canoe. I saw at once that I was in for it. I could not back out now. I had longed to hunt with a native Indian archer, and had, after much negotiation, arranged for this very thing. So, setting my teeth and wrestling bravely with my nerves, I swung myself over the schooner's side by the rope offered me. Immediately my feet were caught by two strong hands and guided into the bottom of the canoe. I would have fallen out into the water at once, if I had not been thrust upon the boat's bottom near the prow. The foam leaped all round the gunwales, the canoe danced like a roasting pea. Down came my long lance-wood bow and huge bundle of arrows, and were stowed beside me. Then my big provision-box was lowered and set across the middle of the pi-rogue, its ends lapping far over the gunwales.
How that Indian could handle a paddle! We fairly whistled through the wind and the water. My nerve came back to me at once. The canoe could not possibly sink or turn over. It was a charmed thing. It was sentient-endowed with instinct, almost. I drew in a long breath and sat bolt upright, letting my eyes wander over the creaming waves to the limit of vision in the direction of our flight. The wind was boisterously musical, the green salt water was in a high glee. Away before us a slender crescent of sand lay between the surf-line and the low shore-bank set with clumps of palms and fringed with coarse, rush-like grass. The sun was low, and we were running right in his face, so that, as I looked over my shoulder, his light, almost level, shot into my eyes with dazzling effect. Soon, however, we dipped int0 the margin of shadow, as if we had found those shading-lines of the map, made to mark the shore of a sea, when all at once a sense of delicious coolness and dampness, like that which hovers in the mist of a waterfall, crept over me. The salt air had never before smelled so sweet. A flight of white-winged plovers overhead let fall upon us a silken rustle of plumage. One extreme follows another. I suddenly became as bold as I had been timid. I actually turned round so as to sit facing our course. To be sure, I accomplished the feat by a series of gingerly moves, but when I once got round, what a charming scene was presented to me! We flew into the mouth of the crescent, and lo! a creek opened as if by magic, into which the canoe waltzed like a Frenchman after which the white-caps disappeared, leaving us upon a tranquil surface, over which our little vessel slid like a new moon over a June sky. Points of marsh-land, overgrown with rush grass, struck out at us, but the creek interposed its silvery hand, and as we glided on we heard the low, lazy swash of the tide in the miniature inlets. Presently a swell of hummock-ground, with a cincture of dusky palmettos, and dotted with clumps of slender pines, a very garden of the South, rose up before us. The paddle-strokes grew slower, gentler, and then as a breath of flower-fragrance gave us a hint of what a tropical parterre we were approaching, with a little jarring of the canoe, and a short jerk, we touched shore on a keen blade of sand sheathed in the bosom of the creek.
"Get out, ugh!" was the command from Tom-my, the Seminole, or Okechobee (I know not which he was).
I obeyed promptly; but, in so doing, awkwardly pressed back upon the boat's prow, sending the light thing spinning away from the beach, and fell flat on my face in the sand. Tommy made a wry face, a hideous sort of smile, as he paddled in again.
"Ugh! dam scare!" he remarked, as he picked up my provision-box and lugged it ashore. I made no reply, but busied myself with taking care of my bow and arrows, which Tommy scorned to touch, he, no doubt, looking upon my London made weapon with much the same sort of contempt that back-woodsmen used to have for the " new-fangled" rifles of the city-bred sportsmen.
We dragged the pirogue ashore, and, under the muscular guidance of Tommy, I was soon at home, bag and baggage, in the Indian's hunting-lodge, which stood on the highest swell of the hummock. Berkley had given me some instructions; therefore, the first thing I did was to present Tommy with a huge new pipe and a big bag of smoking-tobacco. He took the gift in silence; but I saw that I had won him. His face softened, and he wagged his head pleasantly.
We filled our pipes then, and lighting them just as the sun touched the horizon, sat down in front of the palmetto-thatched hut facing the sound, with the sweet wind singing in the pines overhead, and smoked like two volcanoes-smoked and smoked in silence, watching the myriad waves, out beyond the bar, leap and wrestle and tumble round the low-lying coquina points and rush-lined islets over against the creek's mouth till twilight died and the stars came out and hung above us like great golden clusters of fruit ready to fall. Then we went to rest, on our beds of pine straw and Spanish moss, and I slept through that cool December night without a dream or a start.
When I awoke it was gray dawn. Tommy was already up and gone, leaving behind him the fragrance of tobacco-smoke. I drew on such clothes as I thought the state of society demanded, and went down to the water's edge to take a morning bath. The merest breath of wind was astir, and so still was everything that the boom of the sea on breakers several miles away was distinctly audible. To breathe was to become intoxicated with delight. Long and lovingly I dabbled in the cool salt water, absorbing its healthful essence through every pore of my body and limbs.
But my savage life must needs open savagely. Suddenly I became aware 0f the presence of a companion, a beautiful, slender, tawny cat-a panther something less than a year old-skulking under the fringe of rushes on the other margin of the slim finger of water. It did not seem to see me. I withdrew from my bathing-place and went to get my bow and arrows. When half way to the lodge I heard a sharp, angry cry, half-growl, half-scream, that started the blood in my veins with painful suddenness. I ran and snatched my bow, strung it, seized a handful of arrows and stole cautiously back to my place of bathing. The animal was still there, but it was now standing on its hind feet, making its fore-paws play about its head, which was covered with blood and foam. I drew a heavy steel-pointed shaft full to the barbs and let drive My strong bow made the arrow hiss fiercely as it flew against the thing's breast and passed in up to the feather. A lunge and a plunge and a plash, and here came the agonized animal over and over through the water, howling terribly.
Whiz! Thwack! An arrow, from a point farther up the creek, struck it in the head and settled it. A few struggles and it lay floating on the water near the hither edge. On walking down a little closer I saw four arrows in the cat instead of two; and, with a grunt of satisfaction, Tommy, who had delivered the death-shot, joined me, holding in his hand a stubby bow, and bearing at his back a quiver of short arrows.
Instead of paying attention to the dead animal, Tommy put his hand on my bow in a solemn, caressing, and altogether ludicrous way, and said:
"Ugh! dam good! Ugh! shoot hard!"
According to instructions from Berkley, I returned this flattery by some very fulsome remarks in praise of Tommy's weapons and skill. Then we hauled the dead cat to land, and over its body we silently welded our friendship, and henceforth our mutual confidence was firmly established. I had found an archer companion of the primitive sort, who could rightly appreciate me and my love of the long-bow and arrows. This savage sportsman at my side was in an instant dearer to me than all the enlightened men who had ever laughed and sneered at what they were pleased to call my "mediaeval crotchet," my "mild insanity touching a useless weapon of antiquity." And Tommy, too, was an Ishmaelite on account of the long-bow. He had left the remnant of his people in the ever-glades by the Okechobee, because they had, as he expressed it, "got rifle too dam much. Ugh! bang! bang! scare all turkey, bear, deer, crane, duck clean off-ugh!" Oh, noble red philosopher! your words went to the thirsty places of my being. They were sweeter than flute-notes heard from afar!
We skinned the cat--not gymnastically, but literally-and, after a thorough bath, and "bout" up the creek to look for tracks, we took breakfast in the open air, such a breakfast as Tommy's jaws never before had closed over.
Think of a wild Indian eating jelly-cake and canned fruit, to say nothing of chow-chow and sardines, along with his broiled meat and roasted fish! My crackers-sea-biscuit-seemed to please him best. Berkley had laughed at me when he saw me stuffing the sweetmeats into my box; but if he could have seen that Indian consuming them he would have awarded me high honors as a as follows caterer for a savage hotel. Tommy smacked his lips, and grunted after the manner of a bassoon when he was done eating.
Over against the wide door of our lodge, a half dozen palmetto trees were fancifully grouped together, forming a charming arbor, their great fans lapping across from top to top. The slender boles of some of them were penned in five or six feet high with the bone-like middle stems of their fallen leaves, giving them a weird, skeleton look; but under them a thick, short wire-grass made a most inviting carpet. Here we went for a smoke and to mature some plans for the future. Tommy began to be more sociable and communicative, giving me a rough outline of the surrounding country while he was mending the feathers of some of his elaborately finished arrows.
Of course, after the morning's adventure, I was expecting to see catamounts and panthers every-where, but Tommy assured me that this one was the first he had seen for many months. Indeed, panthers are very scarce in Florida. I have never seen but two in that State. Deer, too, he said, were getting quite rare, but turkeys and wild-fowl were abundant and near at hand.
I drew from him, by degrees, his theory of archery, which with laconic terseness he expressed as follows:
On close examination I found his bow to be the stem of a small sapling split in halves, with very little finish; but his arrows were a wonder of exact work and feathered on the true scientific principle. I could not bend his bow in the slightest, and, when he had braced it, it would have taken the balls of my fingers off to have drawn an arrow to the head on it, yet his great horny hands used it without trouble, sending an arrow of his make full as far as I could, with my bow, shoot the best Highfield target shaft! My hickory hunting arrows, made at great expense by a cunning carpenter, under my own direct supervision, and pointed by a smith of approved skill, were appreciably less nicely adjusted than his. You could easily discover the difference, watching their flight through a long shot over open ground. Here was a triumph of savage cunning and skill over enlightened science and art! This fine finish is not common to Indian arrows. Most of the missiles in the quivers of Sioux, Navajos, and Comanches are detestably rough and unreliable things.