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   Chapter 8 THE STEAM-BOAT IN THE FOREST.

A Jolly Fellowship By Frank R. Stockton Characters: 20901

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


We were in a narrow river, where the tall trees met overhead, while the lower branches and the smaller trees brushed against the little boat as it steamed along. This was the Oclawaha River, and Rectus and I thought it was as good as fairy-land. We stood on the bow of the boat, which wasn't two feet above the water, and took in everything there was to see.

The river wound around in among the great trees, so that we seldom could see more than a few hundred yards ahead, and every turn we made showed us some new picture of green trees and hanging moss and glimpses into the heart of the forest, while everything was reflected in the river, which was as quiet as a looking-glass.

"Talk of theatres!" said Rectus.

"No, don't," said I.

At this moment we both gave a little jump, for a gun went off just behind us. We turned around quickly, and saw that the tall yellow-legs had just fired at a big bird. He didn't hit it.

"Hello!" said Rectus; "we'd better get our gun. The game is beginning to show itself." And off he ran for the rifle.

I didn't know that Rectus had such a bloodthirsty style of mind; but there were a good many things about him that I didn't know. When he came back, he loaded the rifle, which was a little breech-loader, and began eagerly looking about for game.

Corny had been on the upper deck; but in a minute or two she came running out to us.

"Oh! do you know," she called out, "that there are alligators in this river? Do you think they could crawl up into the boat? We go awfully near shore sometimes. They sleep on shore. I do hope I'll see one soon."

"Well, keep a sharp look-out, and perhaps you may," said I.

She sat down on a box near the edge of the deck, and peered into the water and along the shore as if she had been sent there to watch for breakers ahead. Every now and then she screamed out:

"There's one! There! There! There!"

But it was generally a log, or a reflection, or something else that was not an alligator.

Of course we were very near both shores at all times, for the river is so narrow that a small boy could throw a ball over it; but occasionally the deeper part of the channel flowed so near one shore that we ran right up close to the trees, and the branches flapped up against the people on the little forward deck, making the ladies, especially the lady belonging to the yellow-legged party, crouch and scream as if some wood-demon had stuck a hand into the boat and made a grab for their bonnets.

This commotion every now and then, and the almost continual reports from the guns on board, and Corny's screams when she thought she saw an alligator, made the scene quite lively.

Rectus and I took a turn every half-hour at the rifle. It was really a great deal more agreeable to look out at the beautiful pictures that came up before us every few minutes; but, as we had the gun, we couldn't help keeping up a watch for game, besides.

"There!" I whispered to Rectus; "see that big bird! On that limb! Take a crack at him!"

It was a water-turkey, and he sat placidly on a limb close to the water's edge, and about a boat's length ahead of us.

Rectus took a good aim. He slowly turned as the boat approached the bird, keeping his aim upon him, and then he fired.

The water-turkey stuck out his long, snake-like neck, and said:

"Quee! Quee! Quee!"

And then he ran along the limb quite gayly.

"Bang! bang!" went the guns of the yellow-legs, and the turkey actually stopped and looked back. Then he said:

"Quee! Quee!" again, and ran in among the thick leaves.

I believe I could have hit him with a stone.

"It don't seem to be any use," said Mr. Chipperton, who was standing behind us, "to fire at the birds along this river. They know just what to do. I'm almost sure I saw that bird wink. It wouldn't surprise me if the fellows that own the rifles are in conspiracy with these birds. They let out rifles that wont hit, and the birds know it, and sit there and laugh at the passengers. Why, I tell you, sir, if the people who travel up and down this river were all regular shooters, there wouldn't be a bird left in six months."

At this moment Corny saw an alligator,-a real one. It was lying on a log, near shore, and just ahead of the boat. She set up such a yell that it made every one of us jump, and her mother came rushing out of the saloon to see if she was dead. The alligator, who was a good-sized fellow, was so scared that he just slid off his log without taking time to get decently awake, and before any one but Rectus and myself had a chance to see him. The ladies were very much annoyed at this, and urged Corny to scream softly the next time she saw one. Alligators were pretty scarce this trip, for some reason or other. For one thing, the weather was not very warm, and they don't care to come out in the open air unless they can give their cold bodies a good warming up.

Corny now went up on the upper deck, because she thought that she might see alligators farther ahead if she got up higher. In five minutes, she had her hat taken off by a branch of a tree, which swept upon her, as she was leaning over the rail. She called to the pilot to stop the boat and go back for her hat, but the captain, who was up in the pilot-house, stuck out his head and said he reckoned she'd have to wait until they came back. The hat would hang there for a day or two. Corny made no answer to this, but disappeared into the saloon.

In a little while, she came out on the lower deck, wearing a seal-skin hat. She brought a stool with her, and put it near the bow of the boat, a little in front and on one side of the box on which Rectus and I were sitting. Then she sat quietly down and gazed out ahead. The seal-skin cap was rather too warm for the day, perhaps, but she looked very pretty in it.

Directly she looked around at us.

"Where do you shoot alligators?" said she.

"Anywhere, where you may happen to see them," said I, laughing. "On the land, in the water, or wherever they may be."

"I mean in what part of their bodies?" said she.

"Oh! in the eye," I answered.

"Either eye?" she asked.

"Yes; it don't matter which. But how are you going to hit them?"

"I've got a revolver," said she.

And she turned around, like the turret of an iron-clad, until the muzzle of a big seven-shooter pointed right at us.

"My conscience!" I exclaimed; "where did you get that? Don't point it this way!"

"Oh! it's father's. He let me have it. I am going to shoot the first alligator I see. You needn't be afraid of my screaming this time," and she revolved back to her former position.

"One good thing," said Rectus to me, in a low voice; "her pistol isn't cocked."

I had noticed this, and I hoped also that it wasn't loaded.

"Which eye do you shut?" said Corny, turning suddenly upon us.

"Both!" said Rectus.

She did not answer, but looked at me, and I told her to shut her left eye, but to be very particular not to turn around again without lowering her pistol.

She resumed her former position, and we breathed a little easier, although I thought that it might be well for us to go to some other part of the boat until she had finished her sport.

I was about to suggest this to Rectus, when suddenly Corny sprang to her feet, and began blazing away at something ahead. Bang! bang! bang! she went, seven times.

"Why, she didn't stop once to cock it!" cried Rectus, and I was amazed to see how she had fired so rapidly. But as soon as I had counted seven, I stepped up to her and took her pistol. She explained to me how it worked. It was one of those pistols in which the same pull of the trigger jerks up the hammer and lets it down,-the most unsafe things that any one can carry.

"Too bad!" she exclaimed. "I believe it was only a log! But wont you please load it up again for me? Here are some cartridges."

"Corny," said I, "how would you like to have our rifle? It will be better than a pistol for you."

She agreed, instantly, to this exchange, and I showed her how to hold and manage the gun. I didn't think it was a very good thing for a girl to have, but it was a great deal safer than the pistol for the people on board. The latter I put in my pocket.

Corny made one shot, but did no execution. The other gunners on board had been firing away, for some time, at two little birds that kept ahead of us, skimming along over the water, just out of reach of the shot that was sent scattering after them.

"I think it's a shame," said Corny, "to shoot such little birds as that. They can't eat 'em."

"No," said I; "and they can't hit 'em, either, which is a great deal better."

But very soon after this, the shorter yellow-legged man did hit a bird. It was a water-turkey, that had been sitting on a tree, just as we turned a corner. The big bird spread out its wings, made a doleful flutter, and fell into the underbrush by the shore.

"Wont they stop to get him?" asked Corny, with her eyes open as wide as they would go.

One of the hands was standing by, and he laughed.

"Stop the boat when a man shoots a bird? I reckon not. And there isn't anybody that would go into all that underbrush and water only for a bird like that, anyway."

"Well, I think it's murder!" cried Corny. "I thought they ate 'em. Here! Take your gun. I'm much obliged; but I don't want to kill things just to see them fall down and die."

I took the gun very willingly,-although I did not think that Corny would injure any birds with it,-but I asked her what she thought about alligators. She certainly had not supposed that they were killed for food.

"Alligators are wild beasts," she said. "Give me my pistol. I am going to take it back to father."

And away she went. Rectus and I did not keep up our rifle practice much longer. We couldn't hit anything, and the thought that, if we should wound or kill a bird, it would be of no earthly good to us or anybody else, made us follow Corny's example, and we put away our gun. But the other gunners did not stop. As long as daylight lasted a ceaseless banging was kept up.

We were sitting on the forward deck, looking out at the beautiful scenes through which we were passing, and occasionally turning back to see that none of the gunners posted themselves where they might make our positions uncomfortable, when Corny came back to us.

"Can either of you speak French?" she asked.

Rectus

couldn't; but I told her that I understood the language tolerably well, and asked her why she wished to know.

"It's just this," she said. "You see those two men with yellow boots, and the lady with them? She's one of their wives."

"How many wives have they got?" interrupted Rectus, speaking to Corny almost for the first time.

"I mean she is the wife of one of them, of course," she answered, a little sharply; and then she turned herself somewhat more toward me. "And the whole set try to make out they're French, for they talk it nearly all the time. But they're not French, for I heard them talk a good deal better English than they can talk French; and every time a branch nearly hits her, that lady sings out in regular English. And, besides, I know that their French isn't French French, because I can understand a great deal of it, and if it was I couldn't do it. I can talk French a good deal better than I can understand it, anyway. The French people jumble everything up so that I can't make head or tail of it. Father says he don't wonder they have had so many revolutions, when they can't speak their own language more distinctly. He tried to learn it, but didn't keep it up long, and so I took lessons. For, when we go to France, one of us ought to know how to talk, or we shall be cheated dreadfully. Well, you see, over on the little deck, up there, is that gentleman with his wife and a young lady, and they're all travelling together, and these make-believe French people have been jabbering about them ever so long, thinking that nobody else on board understands French. But I listened to them. I couldn't make out all they said, but I could tell that they were saying all sorts of things about those other people, and trying to settle which lady the gentleman was married to, and they made a big mistake, too, for they said the small lady was the one."

"How do you know they were wrong?" I said.

"Why, I went to the gentleman and asked him. I guess he ought to know. And now, if you'll come up there, I'd just like to show those people that they can't talk out loud about the other passengers and have nobody know what they're saying."

"You want to go there and talk French, so as to show them that you understand it?" said I.

"Yes," answered Corny, "that's just it."

"All right; come along," said I. "They may be glad to find out that you know what they're talking about."

And so we all went to the upper deck, Rectus as willing as anybody to see the fun.

Corny seated herself on a little stool near the yellow-legged party, the men of which had put down their guns for a time. Rectus and I sat on the forward railing, near her. Directly she cleared her throat, and then, after looking about her on each side, said to me, in very distinct tones:

"Voy-ezz vows cett hommy ett ses ducks femmys seelah?"[B]

I came near roaring out laughing, but I managed to keep my face straight, and said: "Oui."

"Well, then,-I mean Bean donk lah peetit femmy nest pah lah femmy due hommy. Lah oter femmy este sah femmy."[C]

"VOY-EZZ VOWS CETT HOMMY ETT SES DUCKS FEMMYS SEELAH?"

At this, there was no holding in any longer. I burst out laughing, so that I came near falling off the railing; Rectus laughed because I did; the gentleman with the wife and the young lady laughed madly, and Mr. Chipperton, who came out of the saloon on hearing the uproar, laughed quite cheerfully, and asked what it was all about. But Corny didn't laugh. She turned around short to see what effect her speech had had on the yellow-legged party. It had a good deal of effect. They reddened and looked at us. Then they drew their chairs closer together, and turned their backs to us. What they thought, we never knew; but Corny declared to me afterward that they talked no more French,-at least when she was about.

The gentleman who had been the subject of Corny's French discourse called her over to him, and the four had a gay talk together. I heard Corny tell them that she never could pronounce French in the French way. She pronounced it just as it was spelt, and her father said that ought to be the rule with every language. She had never had a regular teacher; but if people laughed so much at the way she talked, perhaps her father ought to get her one.

I liked Corny better the more I knew of her. It was easy to see that she had taught herself all that she knew. Her mother held her back a good deal, no doubt; but her father seemed more like a boy-companion than anything else, and if Corny hadn't been a very smart girl, she would have been a pretty bad kind of a girl by this time. But she wasn't anything of the sort, although she did do and say everything that came into her head to say or do. Rectus did not agree with me about Corny. He didn't like her.

When it grew dark, I thought we should stop somewhere for the night, for it was hard enough for the boat to twist and squeeze herself along the river in broad daylight. She bumped against big trees that stood on the edge of the stream, and swashed through bushes that stuck out too far from the banks; but she was built for bumping and scratching, and didn't mind it. Sometimes she would turn around a corner and make a short cut through a whole plantation of lily-pads and spatterdocks,-or things like them,-and she would scrape over a sunken log as easily as a wagon-wheel rolls over a stone. She drew only two feet of water, and was flat-bottomed. When she made a very short turn, the men had to push her stern around with poles. Indeed, there was a man with a pole at the bow a good deal of the time, and sometimes he had more pushing off to do than he could manage by himself.

When Mr. Chipperton saw what tight places we had to squeeze through, he admitted that it was quite proper not to try to bring the big steam-boats up here.

But the boat didn't stop. She kept right on. She had to go a hundred and forty miles up that narrow river, and if she made the whole trip from Pilatka and back in two days, she had no time to lose. So, when it was dark, a big iron box was set up on top of the pilot-house, and a fire was built in it of pine-knots and bits of fat pine. This blazed finely, and lighted up the river and the trees on each side, and sometimes threw out such a light that we could see quite a distance ahead. Everybody came out to see the wonderful sight. It was more like fairy-land than ever. When the fire died down a little, the distant scenery seemed to fade away and become indistinct and shadowy, and the great trees stood up like their own ghosts all around us; and then, when fresh knots were thrown in, the fire would blaze up, and the whole scene would be lighted up again, and every tree and bush, and almost every leaf, along the water's edge would be tipped with light, while everything was reflected in the smooth, glittering water.

Rectus and I could hardly go in to supper, and we got through the meal in short order. We staid out on deck until after eleven o'clock, and Corny staid with us a good part of the time. At last, her father came down after her, for they were all going to bed.

"This is a grand sight," said Mr. Chipperton. "I never saw anything to equal it in any transformation scene at a theatre. Some of our theatre people ought to come down here and study it up, so as to get up something of the kind for exhibition in the cities."

Just before we went into bed, our steam-whistle began to sound, and away off in the depths of the forest we could hear every now and then another whistle. The captain told us that there was a boat coming down the river, and that she would soon pass us. The river did not look wide enough for two boats; but when the other whistle sounded as if it were quite near, we ran our boat close into shore among the spatterdocks, in a little cove, and waited there, leaving the channel for the other boat.

Directly, it came around a curve just ahead of us, and truly it was a splendid sight. The lower part of the boat was all lighted up, and the fire was blazing away grandly in its iron box, high up in the air.

To see such a glowing, sparkling apparition as this come sailing out of the depths of the dark forest, was grand! Rectus said he felt like bursting into poetry; but he didn't. He wasn't much on rhymes. He had opportunity enough, though, to get up a pretty good-sized poem, for we were kept awake a long time after we went to bed by the boughs of the trees on shore scratching and tapping against the outside of our state-room.

When we went out on deck the next morning, the first person we saw was Corny, holding on to the flag-staff at the bow and looking over the edge of the deck into the water.

"What are you looking at?" said I, as we went up to her.

"See there!" she cried. "See that turtle! And those two fishes! Look! look!"

We didn't need to be told twice to look. The water was just as clear as crystal, and you could see the bottom everywhere, even in the deepest places, with the great rocks covered with some glittering green substance that looked like emerald slabs, and the fish and turtles swimming about as if they thought there was no one looking at them.

I couldn't understand how the water had become so clear; but I was told that we had left the river proper and were now in a stream that flowed from Silver Spring, which was the end of our voyage into the cypress woods. The water in the spring and in this stream was almost transparent,-very different from the regular water of the river.

About ten o'clock, we reached Silver Spring, which is like a little lake, with some houses on the bank. We made fast at a wharf, and, as we were to stop here some hours, everybody got ready to go ashore.

Corny was the first one ready. Her mother thought she ought not to go, but her father said there was no harm in it.

"If she does," said Mrs. Chipperton, "she'll get herself into some sort of a predicament before she comes back."

I found that in such a case as this Mrs. Chipperton was generally right.

FOOTNOTES:

[B] "Voyez-vous cet homme et ces deux femmes celà?"-Do you see that man and those two women there?

[C] "Bien donc, la petite femme n'est pas la femme du homme. La autre femme est sa femme."-Well, then, the little woman is not the wife of the man. The other woman is his wife. [Of course, the French in this, and the preceding, foot-note is Corny's.-The Author.]

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