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Four Months in a Sneak-Box Part 12

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Seven miles from the end of Santa Rosa Island the boats emerged from the pa.s.sage between the sounds, and entered Choctawhatchee Bay. As the wind arose we struggled in rough water, shaping our course down to the inlet called East Pa.s.s, through which the tide ebbed and flowed into the bay.

Here we encountered an original character known as "Captain Len Destin." He was a fisherman, from New London, Connecticut, and had a comfortable house on the high bank of the inlet, surrounded by cultivated fields, where he had lived since 1852. Having married a native of the country, he settled down to the occupation of his fathers; and being a prince among fishermen, he was able to send good supplies of the best fish to the Pensacola markets. His modus operandi was rather peculiar. Having rowed along the beach on the open Gulf, a boat-load of fishermen, with their nets ready to cast, rested quietly upon their oars in the offing, while a sharp-eyed man walked along the coast, peering into the transparent water, searching for the schools of fish which feed near the strand. The fishermen cautiously follow him, until, suddenly catching sight of a lot of pompanos, sheep's- heads, and other fish, he signals to his companions, and they, quietly approaching the unsuspicious fish, drop their long net into the water, and enclose the whole school. Drawing the net upon the beach, the fish were taken out and carried to Captain Len's landing, inside of the inlet, where they were packed in the refrigerator of a fleet-sailing boat, which, upon receiving its cargo, started immediately for Pensacola. In this way the pompano, the most delicious of southern fishes, being repacked at Pensacola in hogsheads of ice, found its way quickly by rail to New York city, where they were justly appreciated.

Captain Len generously supplied our camp with fish; so making a good fire, we broiled them before it, baking bread in our Dutch oven; and finis.h.i.+ng our sumptuous repast with some hot coffee, we turned a deaf ear to the whistling wind that blew steadily from the north-east. A little schooner of four tons was riding out the gale near the landing.

She was bound for Apalachicola and St. Marks, Florida. Her pa.s.sengers were crowded into a cabin, the confined limits of which would have attracted the attention of any society for the prevention of cruelty to animals, had it contained a freight of quadrupeds instead of human beings. The heads of white and black men and women could be seen above the hatchway at times, as though seeking for a breath of pure air.

The Reverend Mr. B., a colored preacher, crawled out of the hold, and visited my camp. Finding that I sympathized strongly with his unfortunate race, he opened his heart to me, telling of his labors among them. He also gave me an account of his efforts to encourage some observance of the first day of the week among the white inhabitants of Key West; he and other colored Christians having pet.i.tioned the mayor of that city to enforce the laws which require a decent respect for the Lord's day. He grieved over the sinful condition of the inhabitants of that unG.o.dly city, and gave me a sketch of his plans for improving the morality of his white brethren.

He had been travelling, like St. Paul, upon the sea, to visit and encourage the weak negro churches in Florida. His address was that of a gentleman, and his heart beat with generous impulses.

I rowed out to the little craft in the offing, and found in the diminutive cabin eight FIRST-CLa.s.s NEGRO pa.s.sengers, while in the vessel's hold, reclining upon the cargo, were four white men who were voyaging SECOND cla.s.s. The cordage of the little craft was rotten, and the sails nearly worn out, yet all these people were cheerful, and willing to put to sea as soon as the young skipper would dare to venture out upon the Gulf.

The gale finally exhausted itself. On the 24th we rowed along the southern wooded sh.o.r.e of Choctawhatchee Bay, towards its eastern end.

The sound is put down on our charts as Santa Rosa Bay, though the people know it only by its Indian name. It is nearly thirty miles long, and has. an average width of five miles. Its sh.o.r.es are covered by a wilderness, and the settlements are few and far between. As we had not left Captain Len's landing until afternoon, we made only ten miles that night, and camped, supper-less, on "Twelve Mile Point," but making an early start the next morning, we reached at noon the eastern sh.o.r.e of the bay near the log cabin of the man of murderous deeds, to whom we were to look for a.s.sistance in the transportation of our boats across the wilderness to the next inland watercourse.

A tall man, with a most sinister countenance, but rather better dressed than the average backwoodsman, soon made his way to our boats.

I plainly stated my object in calling upon him, and expressed a wish that he would not be severe in his charges, as in that case I should return to Captain Len's landing, put to sea, and follow the coast instead of the interior waters to the inlet of St. Andrew's Bay. He agreed to make the portage for ten dollars, stating that the distance was about fourteen miles; and we in our turn promised to be ready to attend to the loading of the boats the next morning.

As we walked about the plantation, its owner became quite communicative, even pointing out the spot where his wife's nephew had been shot dead, leaving him heir to five hundred head of cattle. He spoke of his differences with his neighbors, and a.s.sured us that nothing but lynch law would "go down" in their wild region, where, he said, no law existed. He had been a physician in his native state of Mississippi, but there were so many widows and orphans who could not pay his fees that he gave up his profession, and came to the Gulf coast of Florida, where he met a widow, who owned, with her nephew, one thousand head of cattle, which roamed through the savanna bottoms of the coast, requiring no care except an occasional salting. Having married the innocent woman, his first victim, he then, according to the testimony of his neighbors, hired a man to shoot his nephew, and had so become the sole owner of the whole herd of cattle, which roamed over thirty square miles of territory.

Here was, indeed, a cheerful guide for two lone voyagers through the uninhabited wilds! Saddles and I made up our minds, however, to accept the inevitable gracefully, and at nine o'clock the next morning the boats were lashed into the wagon, and the retired physician, with two of his men on horseback, accompanied by Saddles and myself on foot, slowly left the clearing, and defiled along an almost undefined trail through the forest. I noticed that the men were well armed, and all on the alert. Occasionally one of the men would be sent off to the right or left to search for cattle signs, but our guide himself hung close to the wagon, seeming to consider prudence the better part of valor.

Opening the conversation with this quondam physician, I asked his opinion in regard to several well-known remedies, and discovered that he used but three. The best medicine, he said, was CALOMEL, the next QUININE, and what they would not cure, GLAUBER'S SALTS would. In fact, he considered salts the specific for all diseases. Leading gently to the subject, I spoke of his nephew's death, when he a.s.sured me the cruel deed had been done by a settler named Bridekirk, who had squatted upon some land belonging to the young man, and though the intruder never had it conveyed to him by government, he considered it his own. Anxious to protect his nephew's interest, the physician took up the claim, and moved his family to the disputed territory.

"Bridekirk," he said, "swore my nephew should never live on what he called HIS claim, and a short time afterwards took his revenge. I had sent the boy for a spur I left at a neighbor's, and when just outside my fence a man who was concealed in a thicket shot the poor fellow. I KNOW it was the devil Bridekirk who did it."

"Did you find his trail?" I asked.

"No," he answered; "we could not pick it up. It was all stamped out.

No one could recognize it, but I know Bridekirk was the a.s.sa.s.sin. lie threatened my life too; but he's dead now."

"Dead!" I exclaimed; "when did he die?"

"Oh, about a week ago. He lived a few miles from here, and one morning SOMEBODY shot him in his doorway."

"Who could have done that?" I inquired.

A savage gleam lit up the physician's eye, as he said, slowly:

"My wife's nephew had some relation in a distant state, and it was reported they would see that Bridekirk got his deserts."

"They came a long way to take their revenge," I remarked.

"Yes, a very long way," he answered; and then added: "This Bridekirk would have been arrested for stealing my cattle if he had lived a week or two longer. Me and a neighbor was out looking up our cattle round here, not long ago, and we saw there were a good many fresh burns in the woods, and as we knew that cattle would go to such places to nibble the fresh gra.s.s that starts up after a fire, we set out for a big burnt patch. While we were in the woods, towards sunset, we saw two men on horseback driving an old bell-steer and four or five young cattle, all of which we easily recognized in the distance as part of my herd. We followed the men cautiously, keeping so far in the woods that they could not see us, when they mounted a little hill, and the last rays of the setting sun striking upon them, we saw that it was Bridekirk and a neighbor who were stealing my stock. We hid in the swamp until nine o'clock at night, and then rode to Bridekirk's clearing. There was a stream in a hollow below his house, but his cattle-pen was on the rising ground a little way off. We tied our horses in the woods, and crawled up to the cow-pen. There we found all the cattle the thieves had stolen excepting the bell-steer. There was a fire down in the hollow by the stream, and we could see Bridekirk and the other fellow skinning my bell-steer, which they had just killed. Said I to my friend, Now we have 'em!' and I took aim at Bridekirk with my gun. My friend was a LAW man, so he said, No, don't shoot; there is some law left, and we have EVIDENCE now. Let's go and indict them. Then if the sheriff won't arrest them, we can find plenty of chances to pull the trigger on them. I go in for law first, and LYNCHING afterwards.' Well, it was a hard thing to lose such a chance when we were boiling over, but I put my gun on my shoulder, and my friend let the bars of the pen down, and we drove the other cattle out as quietly as possible into the woods.

"Next day, Bridekirk's neighbor, who had helped kill the beef, left for parts unknown. Why? because, when he found the bars let down, and the cattle gone, and measured our tracks, he knew WHO had been watching him, and he thought it safest to skedaddle. Bridekirk then kept close in his cabin. He knew who was on his trail THIS TIME. We got the men indicted, and the sheriff had the order of arrest; but he held it for a week, and probably sent word to Bridekirk to keep out of the way. So law, as usual in these parts, fizzled, and it became necessary to try something surer.

"Now I was told that one morning last week, before daybreak, Bridekirk and his hired man heard a noise in the yard that sounded as though some animal was worrying the hens. He suspected it was somebody trying to draw him out into the yard, so he would not go, but tried to get his man to see what was up. The man was afraid, too, for he had his suspicions. At last the noise outside stopped, and the sun began to rise. As n.o.body seemed to be about, Bridekirk stuck his head out of the door, and, not seeing anything, slowly stepped outside. Now there were two men hidden behind a fence, with their guns pointed at the door. As soon as that cow-thief got fairly out of his house, we--THESE FELLOWS, I MEAN--pulled trigger and shot him dead. The authorities held a sort of inquest on the case, but all that is known of the matter is that he came to his death by shots from unknown parties."

Little did this cold-blooded man suspect, while relating his story to me, that his own end would be like Bridekirk's, and that he would soon fall under an a.s.sa.s.sin's hand. I became thoroughly disgusted with my companion, who kept close to my side hour after hour as we trudged through the wilderness. One of his arms was held stiffly to his side, and seemed to be almost useless. He had attempted a piece of imposition on a man who lived near the creek we were approaching, and had received the contents of the settler's shot-gun in his side. Most of the charge had lodged in the shoulder and arm, and the cripple now inveighed against this man, and advised us to keep clear of him when we rowed down the creek. "I have nothing against Mr. B.," he said; "but he is no GENTLEMAN, and you better not camp near him."

Before sunset we entered a heavily gra.s.sed country, where deer were abundant. They sprung from their beds in the tall gra.s.s, and bounded away as we advanced. At twilight the oxen finished their long pull on the banks of a little watercourse known as West Bay Creek, so called because it flows into the West Bay of St. Andrew's Sound. Here we camped for the night.

The two hired men left us to visit a friend who lived several miles distant; but the doctor remained with his oxen in our camp all night.

When the tent was pitched he was permitted to enjoy its shelter alone, for Saddles and I took to our boats, leaving the murderer to his own uneasy dreams. I settled his bill before retiring, so he decamped at an early hour the next morning, having first found out where I had hidden my cordage, and purloining therefrom my longest and best rope.

This was a loss to me, for it was used to secure the boats when they were being hauled from place to place; but I would gladly have parted with any of my belongings to be free from the presence of my unwelcome guest; and how resigned his neighbors must have felt when, a few weeks later, they read in their newspapers that "W. D. Holly was shot last week in his house, in Was.h.i.+ngton County, Florida, by some unknown parties"!

We made a hasty Sunday breakfast of cornstarch, and pulled down the creek, anxious to put some distance between ourselves and the doctor.

Four miles down the stream, where it debouched into West Bay, we found the homes of two settlers. The one living on the right bank was the man who had given Mr. Holly his stiff arm, the other had built himself a rude but comfortable cabin on the opposite sh.o.r.e. Though there was one delicate-looking woman only in this cabin, without any protector, she hospitably asked us to make our camp at her landing, adding, that when her husband returned from the woods she might be able to give us some meat.

Soon a dog came out of the dense forest, followed by a man who bore upon his shoulders the hind-quarters of a deer which he had killed. He bade us welcome, while he remarked that there were no Sundays in these parts, where one day was just like another; and then presenting us with half his venison, regretted that he had not been aware of our arrival, as he could have killed another deer, his dog having started fifteen during a short ramble in the woods. In the thickets of "ti- ti," which are almost as dense as cane-brakes, the deer, panthers, and bears take refuge; and in this great wilderness of St. Andrew's Bay expert hunters can find venison almost any day.

On Monday morning we rowed through West Bay, across the southern end of North Bay, and skirted the north coast of the East Bay of St.

Andrew's, with its picturesque groves of cabbage-palms, for a few miles, when we turned southward into the inlet through which the tidal waters of the Gulf pa.s.s in and out of the sound.

We were now close to the sea, with a few narrow sandy islands only intervening between us and the Gulf of Mexico, and upon these ocean barriers we found breezy camping-grounds. Our course was by the open sea for six or eight miles, when we reached a narrow beach thoroughfare, called Crooked Island Bay, through which we rowed, with Crooked Island on our right hand, until we arrived at the head of the bay, where we expected to find an outlet to the sea. Being overtaken by darkness, we staked our boats on the quiet sheet of water, and at sunrise pushed on to find the opening through the beach. Not a sign of human life had been seen since we had left the western end of the East Bay of St. Andrew's Sound, and we now discovered that no outlet to the sea existed, and that Crooked Island was not an island, but a long strip of beach land which was joined to the main coast by a narrow neck of sandy territory, and that the interior watercourse ended in a creek.

Our portage to the sea now loomed up as a laborious task. We needed at least one man to a.s.sist us, and we were fully half a day's row from the nearest cabin to the west of us, while we might look in vain to the eastward, where the uninhabited coast-line stretched away with its s.h.i.+ning sands and s.h.i.+mmering waters for thirty miles to Cape San Blas.

There, upon a low sand-bar, against which the waves lashed out their fury, rose a tall light-tower, the only friend of the mariner in all this desolate region. We could not look to that distant light for help, however, and were thrown entirely upon our own feeble resources.

Going systematically to work, we surveyed the best route across Crooked Island, which was over the bed of an old inlet; for a hurricane, many years before, washed out a pa.s.sage through the sand- spit, and for years the tide flowed in and out of the interior bay.

Another hurricane afterwards repaired the breach by filling up the new inlet with sand; so Crooked Island enjoyed but a short-lived notoriety, and again became an integral part of the continent.

[The portage across Crooked Island.]

Our survey of the portage gave encouraging results. The Gulf of Mexico was only four hundred feet from the bay, and the shortest route was the best one; so, starting energetically, we dragged the boats by main force across Crooked Island, and launched them in the surf without disaster. We then rowed as rapidly as the rough sea would permit along the coast towards the wide opening of St. Joseph's Bay, the wooded beaches of which rose like a cloud in the soft mists of a sunny day.

The bay was entered at four o'clock in the afternoon, and, being out of water, we hauled our boats high on to the beach, and searched eagerly for signs of moisture in the soil.

Leaving Saddles to build a fire and prepare our evening meal, I proceeded to investigate our new domain, and soon discovered the remains of a cabin near a station, or signal-staff, of the United States Coast Survey. Men do not camp for a number of days at a time in places dest.i.tute of water; and the fact of the cabin having been built on this spot proved conclusively to me that water must be found in the vicinity. After a careful and patient search, I discovered a depression in the high sandy coast, and although the sand was perfectly dry, I thought it possible that a supply of water had been obtained here for the use of the United States Coast Survey party--the same party which had erected the cabin and planted the signal near it.

Going quickly to the beach, I found the sh.e.l.l of an immense clam, with which I returned, and using it as a scoop, or shovel, removed two or three bushels of sand, when a moist stratum was reached, and my clam- shovel struck the chime of a flour-barrel. In my joy I called to Saddles, for I knew our parched throats would soon be relieved. It did not take long to empty the barrel of its contents, which task being finished, we had the pleasure of seeing the water slowly rise and fill the cistern so lately occupied by the sand. In half an hour the water became limpid, and we sat beside our well, drinking, from time to time, like topers, of the sweet water. Our water-cans were filled, and no stint in the culinary department was allowed that evening.

The flames from our camp-fire shot into the soft atmosphere, while the fishes, attracted by its glare, leaped by scores, in a state of bewilderment, from the now quiet water. St. Joseph's Bay has an ample depth of water for sea-going vessels, while its many species of sh.e.l.ls make it one of the best points on the northern Gulf coast for the conchologist.

Although sorry to leave our limpid spring, we launched the boats at seven o'clock the next morning, following the north side of the bay until we arrived at the deserted site of the city of St. Joseph. It seemed impossible to realize that on this desolate spot there had been, only thirty or forty years before, a prosperous city, with a large population and a busy cotton-port, accessible to the largest vessels, and threatening a steady rivalry with Apalachicola. Railroads were the enemies of these southern cities as they diverted the cotton, grown in the interior, from its natural channels by river to the Gulf of Mexico.

The system of "time-freights," on railroads to the eastern Atlantic ports of Charleston and Savannah, had reduced the once promising city of St. Joseph to one shanty and a rotten pier. Apalachicola also felt the iron hand of compet.i.tion, and her line of steamboats lost the carriage upon her n.o.ble river of the cotton from the distant interior.

Railroads were rapidly constructed running east and west, and the rivers flowing to the south were robbed of their commerce.

Beyond St. Joseph city the scenery became almost tropical in its character, and palmettos grew in rank luxuriance on the low savannas.

The long narrow coast on the south side of the bay trended suddenly to the south, and terminated in Cape San Blas, while the sound was ended abruptly by a strip of land which connected the long cape to the main.

The system of interior watercourses here came to a natural end; and pulling our boats upon the strand, we landed by a large turtle-pen, near which was a deserted gra.s.s hut, evidently the home of the turtle- hunter during the "turtle season." Leaving the boats on the salt marsh, we entered the woods and ascended the sand-hills of the Gulf coast, when a boundless view of the sea broke upon us. The s.h.i.+ning strand stretched in regular lines four miles to the south, where the light-tower on the point of the cape rose above the intervening forest. Greeting it as the face of a friend, we rejoiced to see it so near; and standing entranced with the beauty of the vision before us,- -the boundless sea, the most enn.o.bling sight in all nature,--we congratulated ourselves that we had arrived safely at Cape San Blas.

[Map Cape San Blas to Cedar Keys.]

[Map Cape San Blas to Cedar Keys.]

CHAPTER XI.

FROM CAPE SAN BLAS TO ST. MARKS

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