April 9, 1892 - Day33


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Dear Martha,

Today, our caravan stopped by a swamp. We weren’t expecting anything special, but one by one all the wagons ahead of us stopped, so we did, too. Captain Walsh came riding by on his horse, Highlander. We were a little surprised because he usually sends Travis with all of the messages.

Captain Walsh called out, “I’m inviting all children who are old enough to behave to join me out here. I want to show you a real Florida swamp. You must have on shoes or boots. Some of you adults may want to join us. That is, if you can behave.”

That tickled Mama. She said, “Go do it!” I grabbed my sketchbook and took off flying.

Captain Walsh led us to the edge of a low, muddy river. Strange wooden points jutted up out of the water. I sketched them quickly, so I could ask about them later. Some of the trees that lined the shore were full and leafy, and moss hung from their branches. Other trees looked like dead skeletons. There were birds in the sky, birds floating on the water, and birds sitting in the branches of dead trees. Fish jumped right out of the water and splashed back in again.

Captain Walsh said, “I’ve led wagon trains down this way since just after The War Between the States. I’ve learned a thing or two from Indians, naturalists, settlers, and original pioneers, known as ‘Florida Crackers,’ who have grown up on the land. I’d like to teach you a few things about the swamps you’ll be seeing all along our journey.”

Right away he cautioned us. “Always stay back from the edge of the water, children. See who’s taking a nap in the morning sun?” I looked, but I couldn’t make out what he was talking about. Captain Walsh said, “Right there. See those long, scaly animals?” He waited for us to focus. “Those are reptiles. American alligators.”

Alligators! I’d heard about them. I’d had nightmares about them. Now, I was seeing them with my own eyes. They were absolutely still. They didn’t move a muscle or even blink their eyes. I thought they might be dead. Captain Walsh said, “These are the little fellows. Their big brothers are about five times this big.” I was astonished! The “little fellows” were about as long as I am tall. Can you imagine how big their big brothers must be? I sketched as fast as I could while Captain Walsh answered questions.

Miss Essie Mae Pitts asked, “Are they always this still?”

Captain Walsh said, “When they’re sunning themselves, they remain perfectly still. But don’t let that fool you. Alligators can run faster than a full-grown man. In short bursts, they can run as fast as a horse.”

Immediately, everyone backed up. We snickered, embarrassed.

“Florida swamps are interesting, to be sure, but danger is always lurking. Look there, in the fork of this tree.” He pointed nearby. Once again, I had to search for what he wanted us to see. Then, I saw it! A snake was coiled right where several branches joined the trunk of the tree. I shivered. I hadn’t seen it because the snake’s skin was the exact same color of the tree bark.

Captain Walsh pointed to a high tree across the water. “See that big bird over yonder?”

Minnie Good asked, “Is that an eagle?”

Captain Walsh said, “Looks like it, but it’s an osprey. Ospreys always make their nests near water because they’re fish eaters. Many’s the time I’ve seen an osprey swoop down from high above, dip deep into the water with his talons, and come up with a fish.”

Florida is amazing! There is nature everywhere. But there is danger, too.