It was the third day that Kiwal’s tribe had fanned out through the swampland in search of two missing white men who had ignored warnings and entered the marshy land in pursuit of rare specimens of moths and butterflies. Privately, the Indians considered the search a waste of time. Too many white men, some of them criminals fleeing the law, vanished forever once they had poled a boat into the gloomy maze of winding waterways.
Kiwal’s boat moved through the murky swampwater as silently as a moth on the wing. He stood upright at the back of the boat and pushed against the mud with a long pole. Most of the water was too shallow to use a paddle.
The youth’s dark eyes darted from the walls of bright green foliage to search overhanging boughs, ever alert to the dangers of this forbidding but wildly beautiful place. His passageway was a narrow tunnel through lush vegetation too dense for sunlight to penetrate. The steamy air seemed eerily green. Streamers of gray moss dripped from giant cypress trees. Delicate orchids of many colors bloomed freely, where few human eyes would ever see them. Tiny wild canaries flashed yellow and filled the air with beautiful music. Stately long-legged birds waded and used their bills to search the mud for crayfish and minnows.
As much as Kiwal loved his swampland home, it was not a place where one could relax or loll back in a boat to soak up the beauty of nature. Poisonous snakes lurked in the trees overhead or swam silently through the water that was almost black from rotting vegetation. What seemed like a floating log might instead be a dozing and hungry alligator. Kiwal shuddered as he remembered the time his pole had struck a giant hornet’s nest, and he had been forced to dive overboard to escape their vicious, stinging retaliation. He had almost landed on the snout of a surfacing bull alligator! Striking out blindly with his knife, he had desperately scrambled back into his drifting boat. The powerful, gaping jaws had missed his legs by inches!
Kiwal also felt pessimistic about the fate of the lost men, who worked for what was called a museum. He had been told that it was a place where people could go to see and study wildlife that had been collected from all over the world. Do the visitors there appreciate the courage of those who risk their lives so that they might stand safely in front of such exhibits and learn about the wonders of wild and foreign lands? he wondered.
The bronzed youth reached an open area, where the water was clear and deeper. Patches of water hyacinths floated light green bulbous leaves and spikes of lavender flowers. The clearing was encircled by narrow channels, like fingers, that led off in every direction. Storms, like the one two nights ago, often pushed together floating islands and closed them, thus slicing open new pathways through the dense growth. This made it impossible to map the constantly changing network of waterways. What seemed to be solid ground was often a slowly moving water-borne mass that only looked like an island. A man could step out into lush grass and trees and suddenly plunge through the tightly matted growth that held no soil.
Kiwal rested the long pole used to propel his craft and wondered which waterway to choose for searching next. Have the men already been saved by one of our tribesmen? Will they ever be found? he puzzled. Kiwal had been out since before dawn and his stomach gnawed with hunger. An old abandoned chikee caught his eye. It was an Indian home on stilts with open sides and a thatched roof of palm leaves.
The hut would be a good place to eat his noon meal of smoked fish, hard-boiled eggs, and round, flat bread cakes. He could rest for a time before resuming the almost hopeless search that would most likely be stopped after today if no trace of the men were found.
Kiwal slowly poled his craft toward the chikee. He would have to be cautious about tying his boat to the log stilts and leaving it there. Wasps and other stinging insects might live among the dry thatch. Snakes often sunned on such rotting floors of the many old stilt homes scattered throughout the swamp. Decay caused by the damp and steamy climate made it necessary to build often. Old ones were left standing to shelter hunters until the posts rotted through and the hut toppled into the brackish water and broke apart.
The youth was puzzled by what appeared to be a pile of rags on one corner of the wooden platform. But then the pile moved! He caught his breath and poled faster when he saw that it was a man trying to sit up. Then the man sagged and fell back again. There were two of them—white men! And at least one was still alive!
Muscles rippled as Kiwal poled harder, his light craft skimming over the still water. The young Indian leaped onto the sagging floor and threw a rope around one of the upright posts supporting the tilted roof, but his heart sank as he approached the men. Both were exhausted, their clothing tattered, and they bore little resemblance to the clean and nattily dressed men who had entered the swamp more than ten days ago.
He felt better when he found that one was breathing though still unconscious. The other man’s eyes were open and he struggled to speak. “I’m Professor Atwood,” he finally croaked. “My assistant, Mr. Carter, and I were lost and found this hut. Our boat tore loose and sank in the storm. We ran out of safe drinking water yesterday morning. Carter twisted his leg. It’s terribly swollen,” he finished in a whisper.
Kiwal shared his waterbag, then raised up the other man and let cold water trickle into his mouth. He choked, then sucked greedily until the youth had to snatch it away. Too much at once would make the man even sicker.
Hordes of hungry mosquitoes had left both men covered with ugly, splotchy welts. They had suffered cuts from the razor-sharp sawgrass through which they had forced their boat, and the slashes were swollen with infection. Any cut or bite festered quickly in the swamp and could poison the blood and even kill if not treated properly.
“Don’t leave us!” the professor begged, as Kiwal handed him his cloth-wrapped bundle of food and stepped back into the boat.
“Eat, and save some for your friend,” Kiwal said. “I must get something for your wounds. It won’t take long.”
The men were more alert by the time the Indian boy returned, but Mr. Carter was still too weak to sit up. They watched curiously as Kiwal piled stinking black mud and freshly cut foliage onto the platform and climbed out of his boat.
The youth removed a knife from his belt and pounded and slashed the leaves into a mushy green pulp. The strong-smelling herb gave off a sharp, medicinal odor, as Kiwal kneaded the pulp into handfuls of oozy mud. Then he added water to thin it into a salve.
“It stinks, and you will look like boats patched with pitch, but it cools an soothes instantly. It will also repel the swarming insects,” he explained, applying the mixture to the feverish men. They sighed with relief as their torment eased. Next, he dipped large green fronds into the water and used tough vines to bind the cool leaves to Mr. Carter’s purple and swollen leg. Color began to seep back into the pallid face that had been twisted with pain.
From the slanting rays of the sun, Kiwal knew they would have to spend the night here. Alone he could easily have made it back to his village before dark but not with the white men and the specimen cases Professor Atwood was so concerned about. The overloaded boat would ride low in the water and it would be harder to pole. It would be safer to wait until dawn.
Kiwal unwound a fishing line, pried up a piece of the rotting floor, and found a family of white worms to use for bait. Fish were plentiful and their supper was soon cooking over a fire he built on top of a round bed of stones nearby, blackened by many cooking fires over the years. The white men were grateful for the company of the capable youth, who knew well how to survive in the hostile environment of the swamp.
As night closed in, they sat by the fire and the men talked about a previous trip they had made to a land where other Indian tribes lived. Kiwal’s face reflected wonder as Professor Atwood described a land of ice and snow where birds walked but could not fly. Bears there were not small black or brown ones, but seven-foot-tall white giants. People lived in houses made of ice blocks and were clad in furs from head to toe. They had to saw holes through thick ice to catch fish. He could hardly wait to see the picturebook the professor had promised to show him.
The naturalists were scheduled to return to the land of ice soon, and, as the professor gazed into the fire, he said, “Just think. Next year we may be rescued from an ice floe by a boy in furs, driving a sled of dogs. Will he believe we were saved from death in this swamp by a tribal cousin of his who lives in an open-thatched house on stilts, where the whole world is green and the air like hot steam?”
“Perhaps you had better take along a picturebook about the Everglades—just in case,” Kiwal suggested tactfully. The professor and Mr. Carter roared with laughter.