UP THE OCKLAWAHA TO LAKE GRIFFIN.
The spring in which we were moored was a pond covering several acres, from which the run, nine miles in length, conveys its waters to the Ocklawaha. It was so dark when we made fast the night before, that we could not tell exactly in what sort of a place we were.
"This spring is said to be the Fountain of Youth, which Ponce de Leon looked after," said Cornwood, as our passengers gathered on deck in front of the pilot-house, after breakfast. "Out in the middle of this pool, the water is eighty feet deep."
"I never saw so large a volume of clear water; and it is a great pity that Ponce de Leon didn't find it, though it probably would not have made the old gentleman any younger," added Colonel Shepard. "What sort of a fish is it I see in this pond, with a long nose?"
"That is the gar-fish; but it is of no account. He is more like an alligator than a common fish. There is an alligator-gar at the South. But our best fish are not to be found to any great extent in these waters, which are stirred up every day by steamers and rafts. In the upper waters of the St. Johns you will find the best fish and game, though there is plenty of both up this stream."
The party landed, and found on shore a village in the midst of the forest, with stores and a hotel. In the vicinity were cotton and sugar plantations, with many Northern settlers engaged in orange-growing and raising early vegetables for the Northern markets. At the landing, crates of green peas and cucumbers were ready for the steamer, which in less than twenty-four hours could land them in Jacksonville. But we were not much interested in examining the commercial features of the place, and after we had looked over a few orange-groves and fields of bananas, we returned on board. A steamer had just arrived from below, and it was a busy scene at the landing.
"That steamer must have come up in the night," said Mr. Tiffany, as we went on board of the Wetumpka.
"O, yes; steamers run in the night up the Ocklawaha," replied Cornwood.
"But they can see nothing, even in a moonlight night, under the trees that shade the stream in so many places," added the English gentleman.
"On the forward part of the boat they have fires of light wood, which illuminate their course for some distance ahead. They don't all get up here so easy as we did, for they are generally heavily loaded and draw a foot more water, which makes a difference in the navigation. During a considerable portion of the year, Silver Springs is the head of navigation on this river; but freight is brought down from Leesburg in barges, which Yankees call scows."
"But how do they move the scows?"
"With setting-poles, assisted by the current of the river. This place is only five miles from Ocala, to which a railroad has been laid out, though it may be years before it is built," replied Cornwood. "We are in the very heart of Florida now. It is not more than thirty-five miles to Gainesville, to which a stage runs from Ocala three times a week; and that place is on the railroad to Cedar Keys. We are forty-five miles from the Gulf of Mexico, and sixty from the Atlantic. It is thirty miles in a straight line to the St. Johns River, at the southern point of Lake George."
Steam was up on the Wetumpka, and we cast off the fasts from the landing-pier. All the party were on the main deck, looking down into the deep, clear water. The young ladies screamed forth their delight at the reflected objects in the water, and at the fish on the bottom, eighty feet down. We entered the run, and in another hour we were stemming the gentle tide of the Ocklawaha again. The stream was somewhat narrower than below the spring, from which it receives a large volume of water.
"Forward, there!" shouted Cornwood from the pilot-house.
"On deck, sir!" returned Buck Lingley, who was on duty there.
"Stand by with the pole."
Buck seized a pole, of which there were several on the forecastle; but he had no idea what he was to do with it, for he was a salt-water sailor. Cobbington was sitting on the deck, and saw that the deck-hand was puzzled by the situation, and took another pole to assist and show the old salt what to do. At about this time we were driven from our position forward of the saloon by the overhanging branches of the trees and the trailing vines. Cornwood had struck the bell, and the paddle-wheel stopped. But the steamer went ahead until the bow struck the bank of the stream. Overhead the trees met, and formed an arch above us, and the long vines were caught in various parts of the boat.
It seemed to me that we were in a bad scrape, and I looked to the pilot to ascertain if he considered the situation a difficult one. He did not seem to me to be at all disturbed, and I thought it was not worth while to make any outcry. I went down on the main-deck. I found the water was very shallow in the middle of the river, and Cornwood had taken the side where the greatest depth was to be had, though we were thereby more snarled up in the branches of the trees than we should have been if we had hugged the other side of the stream.
At this point the river made a sharp turn, inclining to an acute angle; and the current flowed by the longest way around the bend. Cobbington struck his pike-pole into a tree on the shore, and Buck followed his example. They shoved the head of the boat off, so that she pointed up the stream, while an occasional turn of the wheel was given to send her ahead. The vines and branches snapped and twanged as they broke or slipped from the parts of the boat where they were caught. In a few minutes we were clear of the obstructions, though we had to work the boat around the bends, and through masses of trees in this way, at least twenty times in the course of the forenoon.
The river was full of alligators, and our sportsmen amused themselves by firing at them, but with no great success, for the wobbling of the boat interfered with their aim. About one o'clock we came to a landing-place, where a few logs had been laid and tied into the sand to form a sort of wharf. On the bank was a shanty, and we concluded to stop for a while and have a run on shore, as the ground seemed to be high enough to give us standing room. Dinner was ready, and as soon as we had disposed of it we went on the wharf.
We walked through the woods a short distance, and then came to an orange-grove, with fields of corn six inches high, and sugar-cane of the same height. Across these fields we could see a house, but we did not care to visit it. The woods were full of flowers, and the ladies gathered bouquets to adorn the cabin. I was assisting Miss Margie in this pleasant occupation, when I suddenly heard a rattling sound just ahead of me.
The young lady was between me and the spot from which the sound came. Near her was Chloe, for we did not think it was necessary to confine her to the boats in these wilds of the interior. I did not believe that Griffin Leeds had followed us farther than Pilatka, though I had neither seen nor heard from him since we left him tied to the railing of the pier at Orange Park.
"Run away from there, Miss Margie! This way!" screamed Chloe, with energy. "Come to me, missy!"
Though I had no idea what the matter was, I concluded to retreat in the same direction. The scream of the stewardess brought up the rest of the party, who demanded the cause of the outcry.
"That was a rattlesnake in there!" exclaimed Chloe. "I know his music well enough."
"I should like to see him," said Owen, who had brought his gun with him for the chance of any game he might see.
I picked up a stick, and went with him. As we approached the spot where we had been before, the rattling was renewed.
"Look out, Mr. Owen! That snake will jump six feet, and bite as quick as a flash," screamed Chloe.
"There he is," said Hop Tossford, when we were within twenty feet of the reptile.
He was coiled up in a heap, and looked like a very large snake. He was shaking all over, apparently with anger at being disturbed by our approach; and it was this motion that shook the rattles in his tail. While we were looking at him he made a leap which brought him within twelve or fourteen feet of us, and again coiled himself up for another spring. Owen aimed his gun, and fired into the centre of the coil. The rattlesnake whirled and wriggled for a moment, and then lay still. We could see that his head had been torn all to pieces by the shot, and he was as dead as it was possible for a snake to be. We straightened him out, and found that he was six feet long. When positively assured that he was dead, the ladies came up and examined him. But he was not a pleasant sight to look upon, and a glance or two satisfied them. They wanted no more flowers, and insisted upon going on board at once.
As we started for the boat, we met a gentleman coming down the path from the house to the landing. He proved to be the owner of the plantation, who had come down to see what steamer was at the wharf. He invited us to his house, and would be delighted to have us stay a week; but we felt obliged to decline the invitation with many thanks.
"I should not dare to stay here even a day," said Miss Margie.
"Why not, miss?" asked the gentleman, who was a native of South Carolina.
"Mr. Garningham has just killed a monstrous rattlesnake; and I should be afraid of my life to stay where they are," replied the English maiden.
"We don't mind them at all," replied the gentleman, laughing. "I have lived here ten years, and not one of our people has ever been bitten by a rattlesnake. In fact, I hardly ever heard of such a thing as any one being bitten by a rattlesnake. There are three times as many deaths from suicide in the South, as from the bites of moccasins and rattlesnakes put together. You get used to them in a little while, and don't mind anything more about them than you do the mocking-birds that sing day and night."
"I don't like them at all," added Miss Margie.
"I can't say that I like them," continued the gentleman. "I make a business of killing them when I come across them. I have no doubt the snake you killed was the one that came into my house the other day. We had a big hunt for him, and couldn't find him; and I am very much obliged to the gentleman that shot him. Very likely we shall not see another one for a year."
The gentleman walked with us to the landing, and waited there till the Wetumpka was out of sight. At five o'clock in the afternoon we entered Lake Griffin, which I judged to be about ten miles long, and moored at Leesburg in season for supper. This place is the county-town of Sumter County, and the head of navigation by the Ocklawaha. One end of the town was on Lake Hawkins, and there were a dozen lakes within a few miles of it. We found nothing very different from what we had seen. Our sportsmen brought in large quantities of small game, upon which we feasted, and we sailed about the lake, exchanging hospitalities with the people who treated us like old friends.