Chapter 48 of Freedom's Quest
Note: The "Ais" were the Native Americans who lived along the Indian River Lagoon of Florida's East Coast. The idea for this chapter came after a slight addiction to exploring Taylor Creek
Book one: Part three: Ais
Territory of the Ais, East coast of Florida, Southwest of the Cape of Canaveral
They almost killed him the first day…..
Colucuchia of the Ais, specifically of the northern Otter Clan, paddled silently through the towering moss draped cypress trees. Turtle traps were piled in the center of the canoe, while a basket woven from lithe willow branches held a hand full of hissing turtles, both the soft and hard shelled varieties. The turtles represented two days of fine eating and not even all the mornings traps had been checked yet. A fine morning for paddling and he contemplated on the ending of the storm season and the village returning to their winter town on the lagoon. There would be tasty terrapins and finned turtles to trap in the lagoon.
Large grandfather woodpeckers, crested, brilliant red headed with black and white wing feathers flitted overhead from tree to tree. Wind whistled through the tall trees, yet the dark water beneath the boat was as still as a looking glass, reflecting the tall trees, wispy clouds, the dugout canoe with its two occupants. He could see himself and Savochequeya, eldest son of his sister, kneeling at the front of the boat. When had my hair turned so gray, he wondered? My hair grows like the hanging tree moss, a concept he found humorous. Well he had been elected to the council of the elders and none of them were exactly nursing whelps. A curling white egret feather drifted lazily through their reflections, the only surface indication of the winds singing in the tree limbs and stirring the gray moss.
Colucuchia quietly rested his paddle across the boat, reached down into the reflection and cupping a handful of tannic water, lifted it to his mouth tasting-considering the quality of the water. Yes, it was good turtle water. The complicated flavoring of the brown water hinted of pungent bat droppings, the fishy taste of fish hawk and eagle droppings, the bitter tang of acorns, perhaps hickories, and …. Yes, overripe Paw-Paws. The water also had the slight ammonia odor of red eared shell crackers bedding somewhere nearby, hidden under the dark water.
Yes, it was good turtle water. Yet, he thought studying the shadows, there was also the taste of alligator. Not just any alligator, which was in the taste of all fresh waters, but the specific acrid taste of old bull.
The concept of an old alligator in the Ais tongue was the same meaning of large alligator, a grandfather bull. Colucuchia tasted a second cupped palm of water and considered. How close? Bull urine was distinct and spread freely when marking food or a good hunting area- warning to any and all interlopers.
He watched as a large spider pulled a blue dragonfly up the rippled bark of a cypress tree. Grandfather spiders, whose legs spanned the size of a man’s palm, perched upon every tree in their sight. Harmless to the people, these quick hunters were no web builders; instead they stalked and ambushed their food near the waterline.
As did the Grandfather Alligators.
“Good turtle water” said Colucuchia. “Also, there is the taste of a Grandfather alligator” and began his quiet paddling anew.
Savochequeya understood the implicit warning. There were always alligators, perhaps slightly fewer in the saltish waters of their winter village, but they were always present. For his uncle to give a verbal acknowledgement, it meant there might be a threat or something uniquely dangerous about this particular Grandfather.
Paddling through the maze like twisted openings between the trees, they soon found the alligator watching over its intended meal.
Their efficient turtle yet simple traps consisted of locating a fallen tree or log, which the turtles naturally climbed onto to for the suns warmth; and they would assemble a willow branch entrapment just under the water around the log. At a later time, usually the next day; upon their approach to the fallen tree, the turtles would scuttle off the sun warmed wood and dive into the trap. In their panic the turtles hardly ever found their way free. No easier food, so tasty could be caught so simply.
However this time, they had caught something besides a turtle in their trap: something.
From the dappled shadows they paddled into the sunlit opening of a fallen cypress tree and the location of their next trap. Savochequeya, kneeling in the front of the boat was the first spy the incredulous sight of forest nymph perched on their tree. The nymph, Man-like, half otter, skin dark to match the surrounding water, covered in mud and blood, wearing torn buckskin leggings, its dark feet and hands grasped at the cypress branches; the nymph also had an obedient servant, for below the branches drifted a grandfather whose scaled and armored body spanned the length of two grown men and a boy.
The nymph’s dark eyes followed them as they slowly glided from the shadows, his uncle stopping the canoe well short of the tree, the nymph and the grandfather alligator.
Savochequeya expected any moment, the nymph would, like a turtle or otter slither off the log to disappear forever into the murky water. Perhaps the nymph would get tangled in their turtle trap!
Thinking of the attention and envious faces of the villagers when they returned with a captured forest nymph, he reached down and grasped his barbed fish spear.
Colucuchia, a little less given to witches tales or children’s stories observed something quite different. A man clung to the branches; a man distinctively dark of skin, perhaps wounded, seeking refuge from a very large alligator. True he was like no man he had never seen before, but he had perhaps heard of, this man’s tribe. But Colucuchia, ever given to the practical side of survival, observed many details of unique scene; first the stranger was nowhere near high enough to be safe from the floating alligator. The grandfather could use his powerful tail to jump at least twice as high out of the water as where this stranger now sought shelter.
So why then was he still alive, pondered Colucuchia, observing the congealed bloody teeth marks that were raked across his bare chest and back, while below him, the grandfather floated silently with a rag twisted around its toothy snout. Nearby, caught up to the cypress branches was floating log, perhaps this stranger had been crossing the black waters on that?
Further out in the waters he glimpsed many dark eyes, intently studying him and Savochequeya. So the grandfather was keeping other alligators at bay, safeguarding his meal. Yet the stranger was still alive, at least for the moment, for he the muscles on the back of his sister’s son slowly tensed as he quietly lifted his spear from the bottom of the dugout. Well everyone wants a trophy.
“Not yet” he commanded to his young charge. They may well kill this stranger, but not just yet. It was not every day which you happened upon a man whose skin matched the color of the dark watered swamps.
He turned his attention back to grandfather, who at the sound of his voice had submerged silently beneath the still black waters; why had it not fed? But the answer was self evident. In his many years he had observed other alligators and their more dangerous salt water cousins- crocodiles, with torn animal hides twisted round their snouts, the rare outcome of the spinning powerful death roll practiced by both types of hunters.
Once an alligator or crocodile had an animal skin twisted round their snouts, they had no option but to patiently wait for the skins or hides to rot away before they could free their mouths to feed again. He had seen these animals survive two complete moon cycles, not eating until finally released of their skin enfoldment.
So the grandfather had the strangers cloth wrapped around its mouth. Good fortune for the stranger or unhurried death by starvation? To kill him now would be a merciful death.
Savochequeya, at last having noticed the other alligators that surrounded them, exhaled a curse that verbalized as a grunt; for the other hunters began to cautiously circle closer to the forest nymph, now that the grandfather had submerged.
However even more worrisome were the tiny bubbles arising from the black water. Bubbles that were released when something moved across the leaf strewn mucky bottom of the swamp.
The tiny round bubbles that expressed the odor of rotten eggs upon breaching the calm surface; small round bubbles that were moving towards their dugout canoe!
So intent was Savochequeya on following the approaching bubbles that he yelped out loud when a snake bird abruptly surfaced next to the boat, the startled bird immediately disappearing back into the murky waters. The unmanly yell was deeply embarrassing to the young man who hoped to one day become a renowned warrior.
Colucuchia would have laughed, but he too, was intent on following the progress of the submerged grandfather as it placed itself between the intruding canoe and its food. The Alligator slowly surfaced, primordial eyes appearing first, then two clawed hands, each hand larger than a mans head, broke the surface on either side of the enormous scarred snout. Under the wet twisted rag were rows of massive ivory teeth.
He knew the grandfather had to defend its food, and although it could not currently crush them with its powerful jaws and spin them under the brown waters, the alligator could still tip over their dugout, spilling them into the swamp. And there were other hunters with their jaws unhindered.
“Be ready to steady the boat” Colucuchia hissed.
Quick as a cat, he lifted his club, a sturdy oak shaft topped with a heavy conch shell. The powerful club could kill any animal short of an adult bison or a grandfather alligator. With all the force he could muster, off balanced and with one hand, he struck the grandfather between the eyes.
A fountain of water exploded from beneath the canoe, lifting and nearly upsetting the boat as the stunned grandfather rolled away diving for the shelter of the mucky swamp floor.
Savochequeya expertly corrected the tipping canoe by quickly slapping the water with his paddle, pushing hard against the rippled waves and preventing the boat from spilling its passengers.
Colucuchia dropped his club, knowing he had not even injured the grandfather with his blow; the hit had simply startled the great beast. It would return soon and would possibly be angry. He would be angry if a stranger had struck him on the head and stolen his food.
He paddled the dugout up close to the fallen cypress tree, pushing the front of the canoe deep into the branches. Grandfather spiders scurried away from the disturbing boat. Colucuchia , grasped the tree trunk and a branch, leaning his weight over the fallen tree to steady the canoe.
“Get him into the boat” for at last he, like the young man in front of the boat, had also considered the attentions and jealous faces when they brought this odd stranger to the village.
Up close, Savochequeya realized his first impressions had been incorrect, not a forest nymph sat in the tree but a man. The man, shirtless had dark skin, crisscrossed with scratches, welted from a myriad of insect bites and torn from talons and teeth. Savochequeya thought he recognized festering claw marks from a panther, and above all the wounds and markings, were deep gouges that still oozed, cutting rivulets through cached mud; the gouges roughly matching to the grip and teeth of an alligator. The stranger’s only possessions seemed to be a small pouch that hung from his neck and his torn leather leggings.
The dark man spoke for the first time, unintelligible words in a guttural tongue:
“De Soto!” said the stranger, words that had no sense or meaning and for the first time, Savochequeya looked deeply into the man’s eyes to find the far away vacant look of those who were fevered or dying.
“Quickly, into the boat” ordered Savochequeya in the Ais tongue, finding the man surprisingly heavy and reluctant to release the cypress limbs.
At last, the stranger’s eyes focused clearly on Savochequeya and his uncle, then glancing around the black water swamp he was evidently startled to see nothing but water and trees.
“Jesus Christ”, exclaimed Luis Castillo and then louder “Where is my horse?”
But at last releasing his grasp upon the tree branch and consented to letting the young Indian assist him into the narrow boat.
As he attempted to settle onto the turtle traps, lightning shot through the entire world and Luis Castillo dropped heavily to the bottom of the canoe, his face settling into muddy water next to a cage where angry pointed nosed green turtles struck at him over and over. Then the world faded to black.
Colucuchia dropped his club to the bottom of the boat, admiring the handsome tattoo of a sea horse on the stranger’s bicep. The stranger’s words had meant nothing to him, just nonsense of the addled. Yet, that was not why he had struck the delirious man.
When Savochequeya had assisted the man into canoe, Colucuchia had recognized the scars of a warrior, puckered scars of arrows and healed slashes from shark toothed edged weapons.
A man yes, but what exactly had they rescued?
He had after all, heard of this stranger’s tribe
Return HOME from Ais Story
My book on Florida history:
Struggle for the northern frontier and other lost tales of old Florida