Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Chase on the Lagoon
By Ephraim George Squier (18211888)
[Born in Bethlehem, N. Y., 1821. Died in Brooklyn, N. Y., 1888. Waikna; or Adventures on the Mosquito Shore. 1855.]
AS the lagoon narrowed, our course gradually brought us close inshore. I had observed some palm-trees on the same side of the lagoon, but the ground seemed so low, and tangled with verdure, that I doubted if the trees indicated, as they usually do, a village at their feet. I nevertheless maintained a sharp lookout, and kept the boat as near to the wind as possible, so as to slip by without observation. It was not until we were abreast of the palms, that I saw signs of human habitations. But then I made out a large number of canoes drawn up in a little bay, and, through a narrow vista in the trees, saw distinctly a considerable collection of huts. There were also several of the inhabitants moving about among the canoes.
I observed also that our boat had attracted attention, and that a number of men were hurrying down to the shore. I was in hopes that they would be content with regarding us from a distance, and was not a little annoyed when I saw two large boats push from the landing. We did not stop to speculate upon their purposes, but shook out every thread of our little sail, and, each taking a paddle, we fell to work with a determination of giving our pursuers as pretty a chase as ever came off on the Mosquito Shore. It was now three oclock in the afternoon, and I felt confident that we could not be overtaken, if at all, before night, and then it would be comparatively easy to elude them.
Our pursuers had no sails, but their boats were larger, and numerously manned by men more used to the paddle than either Antonio or myself. While the wind lasted, we rather increased our distance, but as the sun went down the breeze declined, and our sail became useless, so we were obliged to take it in, and trust to our paddles alone. This gave our pursuers new courage, and I could hear their shouts echoed back from the shores. When night fell they had shortened their distance to less than half what it had been at the outset, and were so near that we could almost make out their words; for, during quiet nights, on these lagoons, voices can be distinguished at the distance of a mile. The lagoon narrowed more and more, and was evidently getting to be as contracted as the channel by which we had entered. This was against us; for, although we had almost lost sight of our pursuers in the gathering darkness, our safety depended entirely upon our slipping, unobserved, into some narrow creek. But we strained our eyes in vain, to discover such a retreat. The mangroves presented one dark, unbroken front.
The conviction was now forced upon me that, in spite of all our efforts to avoid it, we were to be involved in a second fight. I laid aside my paddle, and got out my gun. And now I experienced again the same ague-like sensations which I have described as preceding our struggle on the Prinza-pulka. It required the utmost effort to keep my teeth from chattering audibly. I had a singular and painful sensation of fulness about the heart. So decided were all these phenomena, that, notwithstanding our danger, I felt glad it was so dark that my companions could not see my weakness. But soon the veins in my temples began to swell with blood, pulsating with tense sharpness, like the vibration of a bow-string; and then the muscles became rigid and firm as iron. I was ready for blood! Twice only have I experienced these terrible sensations, and God grant that they may never agonize my nerves again!
Our enemies were now so near that I was on the point of venturing a random long shot at them, when, with a suppressed exclamation of joy, Antonio suddenly turned our canoe into a narrow creek, where the mangroves separated, like walls, on either side. Where we entered, it was scarcely twenty feet wide, and soon contracted to ten or twelve. We glided in rapidly for perhaps two hundred yards, when Antonio stopped to listen. I heard nothing, and gave the word to proceed. But the crafty Indian said No; and, carefully leaning over the edge of the boat, plunged his head in the water. He held it there a few seconds, then started up, exclaiming, They are coming! Again we bent to the paddles, and drove the boat up the narrow creek with incredible velocity.
I was so eager to get a shot at our pursuers that I scarcely comprehended what he meant, when, stopping suddenly, Antonio pressed his paddle in my hands, and, exchanging a few hurried words with the Poyer boy, each took a machete in his mouth, and leaped overboard. I felt a sudden suspicion that they had deserted me, and remained for the time motionless. A moment after, they called to me from the shore, Paddle! paddle! and, at the same instant, I heard the blows of their machetes ringing on the trunks of the mangroves. I at once comprehended that they were felling trees across the narrow creek, to obstruct the pursuit; and I threw aside the paddle, and took my gun again, determined to protect my devoted friends at any hazard. I never forgave myself for my momentary but ungenerous distrust!
Our pursuers heard the sound of the blows, and, no doubt comprehending what was going on, raised loud shouts, and redoubled their speed. Kling! kling! rang the machetes on the hard wood! Oh, how I longed to hear the crash of the falling trees! Soon one of them began to crackleanother blow, and down it fell, the trunk splashing gloriously in the water! Another crackle, a rapid rustling of branches, and another splash in the water! It was our turn to shout now!
I gave Antonio and the Poyer boy each a hearty embrace, as, dripping with water, they clambered back into our little boat. We now pushed a few yards up the stream, stopped close to the slimy bank, and awaited our pursuers. Come on, now, I shouted, and not one of you shall pass that rude barrier alive!
The first boat ran boldly up to the fallen trees, but the discharge of a single barrel of my gun sent it back, precipitately, out of reach. We could distinguish a hurried conversation between the occupants of the first boat and of the second, when the latter came up. It did not last long, and when it stopped, Antonio, in a manner evincing more alarm than he had ever before exhibited, caught me by the arm, and explained hurriedly that the second boat was going back, and that the narrow creek, in which we were, no doubt communicated with the principal channel by a second mouth. While one boat was thus blockading us in front, the second was hastening to assail us in the rear! I comprehended the movement at once. Our deliberation was short, for our lives might depend upon an improvement of the minutes. Stealthily, scarce daring to breathe, yet with the utmost rapidity possible, we pushed up the creek. As Antonio had conjectured, it soon began to curve back toward the estuary. We had pursued our course perhaps ten or fifteen minutesthey seemed hours!when we overheard the approach of the second boat. We at once drew ours close to the bank, in the gloomiest covert we could find. On came the boat, the paddlers, secure of the success of their device, straining themselves to the utmost. There was a moment of keen suspense, and, to our inexpressible relief, the boat passed by us. We now resumed our paddles, and hastened on our course. But before we entered the principal channel, my companions clambered into the overhanging mangroves, and in an incredibly short space of time had fallen other trees across the creek, so as completely to shut in the boat which had attempted to surprise us.
The device was successful; we soon emerged from the creek, and the sea-breeze having now set in, favorably to our course, we were able to put up our sail and defy pursuit. We saw nothing afterward of our eager friends of Tongla Lagoon.