Three weeks of savage life
Part 2 of 2
What a fortnight followed my introduction to Tommy! It was a short, deep draught of the kind of life I had so often dreamed of and longed for. I became a savage of the purest type. In less than three days I could paddle a canoe second only to Tommy himself, and at the end of a week I had mastered a great number of Indian hunting-tricks, and had become a third better shot than when I landed at the hummock.
What days spent coasting about the fringes of the inlets for wild-fowl, or stalking the thickets and savannahs for turkeys! When I think of it now, I can hear the dull "flap" of Tommy's bow and the "tshe-e-e-e " of his deadly arrow, ending with a "chuck," as it puffed the feathers from a duck or struck a turkey through and through; and I live those days over again.
From the first I recognized Tommy as my master in the noble science and art of archery, and I labored hard to win his approbation by some achievement worthy his notice. At last I accomplished this. He had a very broad-feathered arrow which he had named "floo-hoo," on account of 2 peculiar roaring sound it made while flying through the air. You could hear it two hundred yards. One day he shot this arrow at a plover standing on a point of sand. It went loudly whizzing just over the bird's back, making it settle low down as if struck at by a hawk and frightened out of its wits. I was at Tommy's side when he shot. The bird was a good hundred yards away. He did not miss it a foot. Now was my time, and I settled myself to my work.
Selecting a light, narrow-feathered shaft, I planted my feet firmly, measured the distance carefully with my eye, drew to my ear and let go. It was a glorious piece of luck and good shooting combined. The arrow went like a thought, noiselessly, unwaveringly straight to the mark, cutting the game through the craw, killing it on the spot. I leaned on my bow with as much nonchalance and grace as I could command, while Tommy gave me my meed of praise. He patted me on the back and wagged his head significantly; he grunted in various keys, and finally wound up with:
On one of the sweetest days that ever blessed a semi-tropic country, we drifted in 0ur little canoe out of the creek's mouth, and shot off among the wilderness of islands beyond which the 0cean kept up its eternal booming on the reefs. I let Tommy do all the paddling, whilst I, pretending to keep on the lookout for wild-fowl, lay almost at full length, gazing over the gunwale, enjoying the delicious sense of rest. The water was as smooth as glass, and the tireless arm of my stalwart comrade sent the light shell along, like a swallow skimming the surface, with scarcely a ripple in the wake. It was while I lay thus that Tommy gave the finest exhibition of archery one may ever expect to see-the finest, perhaps, ever seen by any one. An albino fish-hawk, almost snow-white, came drifting over us, high up in the calm reaches of mellow sun-shine. Tommy let fall his paddle on the bottom of the canoe, and seized his bow and an arrow, stringing his weapon almost instantaneously. For a moment he steadied himself, then fixing his keen eyes on the bird, he drew with such power that the huge muscles on his arms writhed into dark knots and kinks, and the tough wood of the bow seemed strained ready to break. When he let go, the arrow fairly screamed through the air. I could not follow its flight, but I saw a ring of white feathers suddenly formed above the great bird, heard the "chuck" as it whirled over and came tumbling down to the water impaled on the shaft!
That night we slept on a mere tuft of an island in full view of the open ocean, and had the ill-luck to be caught there in an awful gale, which flung the spume of the hungry white-caps to the highest point we could reach, coming very nearly washing our boat away in spite of all our efforts. The worst was over, however, in less than three hours, and then I had a sweet sleep on the cool sand, washed as clean as any sheet by the ebb and flow of the water in the pulse of the storm. I recollect that when I awoke the sun was just above the ocean in the east, and Tommy was sitting close down by the surf-line smoking, in an attitude not unlike that 0f a huge bull-frog. Far away I saw a white sail, some ship blown out of its course by the storm. In a few minutes it had dipped below the horizon, on its way t0 the cities I despised.
When we returned to our hummock, lo! our lodge was gone on the wings of the wind, blown bodily away. No great loss, however, for Tommy erected a new and better one in about two hours. For the remainder of the day we lounged on the stiff wire-grass, smoking and dreaming our dreams, with a heaven blue as turquoise above us, and the wind, like a cool stream, washing over us from head to foot. I had adopted, in the main, Tommy's fashion of dress, and wearing it I obtained a new insight into freedom. Savage liberty is something, indeed, for poets to be proud of. There is no other liberty. Free limbs give free thought. A fashionable coat knocks all the poetry out of the soul-a pair of patent-leather boots will ruin a deal of philosophy. Let in the wind and sun to your skin, and you will absorb and assimilate the very essence of healthful nature, after which it will well from your heart in song as true and pure as the song of a babe, and as strong as the voice of the sea.
Several miles back on the mainland, west of out lodge, was one of those small, coffee-colored lakes so common in middle and southern Florida. It was a tranquil, wood-locked sheet, reflecting in its brown breast the magnolia and bay trees that fringed its margin. We reached it by infinite labor, poling our canoe up a narrow, crooked, Styx-like stream, which every here and there was choked up with rushes, lilies, and tall aquatic weeds; many of the latter flaunting gay flowers. The lake was called by Tommy "Crane-Crane" on account of the numbers of cranes and herons haunting it. We camped near it for several days, enjoying some delightful sport with the long-legged, stately-stepping birds.
Tommy and I took turns about paddling the canoe round the edge of the pond, while the other lay in wait for the wary victims. I killed a beautiful white heron on the wing, no doubt an accidental shot, but I got more praise from Tommy, nevertheless. Our leading adventure, however, was with a huge alligator, which came near ending me, most ignobly, by a twirl of its tail. We had headed the big fellow off from the marsh he was making for; he seemed stupid and slow, as if some-thing had but half-aroused him from a deep torpor. An arrow or two, which rebounded from his flinty hide, seemed to somewhat enliven him; he raised his head and gaped at us. Simultaneously Tommy and I let him swallow a couple of broad-headed arrows. What contortions! He came tumbling towards me. In my hurry to avoid him I tripped on a bunch of saw-palmetto and fell full length on the ground. The next moment the giant saurian's caudal weapon just grazed my body -a blow that would have bowled over an ox! He escaped very easily, plunging into the mud-slush of the marsh. This was as much alligator fun as I could stand.
Day by day the fascination of savage life wound its silver snare-threads closer and tighter upon me. Its sweetest part was the idling time at noon and night when, stretched under the pavilion of a palmetto tree, or lying on the white sand of the beach, I felt time drift by me like a fragrant tide, every moment a bubble, and every hour a warm, foamy wave of quiet joy. Sometimes, too, while floating at the will of the tide in Tommy's little canoe, a breath would fall upon me, as if fresh from God's lips, and I would suddenly become, in truth, a living soul. To and fro, to and fro, the little cradle swayed, rocked by the shining finger of the sea, lulling me to sleep, with the wind above and the water below me. How refreshing and yet how quieting those
"Infinis bercements du loisir embaumé!"
No man with a soul can resist them. No man who has once tasted their unique effect can forget it ever. The other extreme of savage life is the wild joy of the chase-the whir of the arrow-the hard, successful shot-the struggle with danger by field and flood-then the camp-fire, the deep, sweet sleep and healthful awakening-the play of strong muscles and taut sinews-ah! what all does enter into it.
Running from one limit of this life to the other is the essence of rugged, utter freedom-the freedom of nakedness, if you like, the freedom to run and leap and yell, to lie down when you list and get up when you please, to eat freely and drink copiously-to smoke good tobacco without seeing elevated noses and hearing polite imprecations-to meet Nature face to face, and put your hand familiarly against her cheek, and talk to her as to an equal. All this I did with a gusto, and found it all good.
But I must hasten. If I stop to reflect I shall never know where to end.
We went from one bright place to another-out of one charming excitement into another.
Our next trip was down the coast to shoot curlews and marsh-hens, on a reach of strong rush-marsh, hemmed with a beach of sand, whereon ran innumerable birds, a sort of sandpiper. They could dodge an arrow with surprising ease. We dwelt on a tussock of this marsh for a week, shooting till our limbs ached, then resting beside a pool of sweet water, to smoke and doze, bothered very little with insects, intensely happy and careless of the morrow. We bathed in shoal water, rolling and tumbling in the freedom of nakedness, just out of the reach of some big sharks that now and then lifted sword-like fins above the green surface of the sea, swimming round and round, sniffing the fragrance 0f our clean flesh, no doubt, and longing to munch us. Ah! what a lover salt sea-water is. It embraces one all over and thrills him through a thousand nerves to his remotest marrow. If there were no sharks, I should be delighted to swim from the Florida coast to the Queen of the Antilles!
But all things have an end, and betimes my savage life drew near its close. I started, with a feeling of sudden pain and sorrow and a sinking of heart, when, one night, sitting out by the water under the great red stars, I happened to count the days I had been with Tommy. Seventeen days! Three or four more and then farewell! Tommy was lying near me, smoking away, as peacefully as a piece of lighted punk in still weather. Good, strong, free Tommy, my model archer! How could I ever leave him and tear myself away from this sweet, careless life by the warm sea? But duty is inexorable. The days leaped past like fawns in a fright, and one morning we saw, from the door of the lodge, the sails of Berkley's schooner shining beyond the creek's mouth. A puff of white smoke from the larboard bow - a moment, and then, boo-o-o-m! a signal from Berkley's fowling gun. I must get ready and be off. I hesitated. I looked at Tommy. His face was inscrutable; but he began to get ready my things to hurry me away I Perhaps the dear fellow was tired enough of me-who knows? I sighed and swallowed a very hard lump of discontent.
Again my box lapped over the gunwales of the canoe, again I sat a-squat in the forward part of the frail thing, with my bow and what arrows I had left beside me. The green sea-water whispered to me from the flying keel, the wind sang to me, and the reef boomed far eastward; but I felt no shiver of delight leap through me. I was waking from my sweet dream, bidding adieu to my wild life, never to taste it again. The sound of the dip, dip, dip of Tommy's paddle was like a dirge. I pulled my hat low over my eyes.
"Hillo! all ready there, below!" cried Berkley. I clutched the rope in a desperate mood, and climbed aboard the schooner. My box and my weapons followed me.
"Good-by, ugh!" said Tommy.
"Good-by, dear fellow!" I replied, and we flew apart, like two sea-birds, and all was over.
"The dirtiest, greasiest, outdaciousest looking man in the world, you are!" cried Berkley. "Let's have a drop or so." But I did not care for wine.