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Wild Genius

ISSUE:  Spring 1933

Certain wild creatures appear to me to belong in a class by themselves—there are distinguished beasts. Even as a boy, brought up in an immense and lonely wilderness, I began to name them—those remarkable characters of the woods and waters—creatures whose unconventional behavior was the index to their high intelligence. I have always followed, with an interest as keen as that which would have been aroused by startling individuals of the human race, the life histories of superb solitaries such as Roland, Old Cyclops, and the Swamp Brigand. Fantastic names they were; but in their admirable singularity, fantastic creatures they were, worthy of a place of honor in a gallery of nature’s own elect. Just as all men are created unequal, so many animals are; and now and then we encounter complete originals, so informal and arbitrary in their sagacity that the novelty of them is the more refreshing. . . . Nature is by no means given over to mass production; her spirit is often that of a great creative artist.

It is not for me to discuss rogue elephants, or leopards which develop man-eating proclivities, or lions like those of Tsavo, that completely held up the building of the railroad between Mombasa and Nairobi. It is better for me to limit myself to creatures with which I have had certain personal dealings and encounters; for what these may lack in size in comparison with some of the denizens of the Dark Continent, they ma,ke up amply in sagacity. And intelligence is always more interesting than avoirdupois. Besides, I knew them. Roland, the great crippled stag, had a personality as appealing as any I have ever encountered during my forty years of roaming the woods. As a physical handicap in the case of a human being will often result in the development of a compensating mental keenness, I have often thought that Roland’s injury (the hoof on his right hind leg had either been cut off in a steel trap or had been torn away by buckshot) accounted in part for that wariness he displayed, amounting, it seemed to me, almost to the lonely comprehension of genius.

Like so much news of wild life on the plantation, word of this great and singular stag came to me first from Negro turpentine workers, who invariably emphasized the buck’s size, his peculiar limp, his towering antlers, and his original sagacity. Jim Howard told me that he had three times, in the dewy light of the pineland morning, seen Roland “going to bed”; and that each time he had waded across a pond before lying down. A deer is well aware that his enemies will usually trail him; and water has the effect of laying the telltale scent. Yet only the wariest stag will practice habitually this safeguarding maneuver.

My first fair sight of Roland came in startling fashion. One morning I ran my car into a little blind road and stopped it there, intending to look at some timber. As I stepped into a low copse-like growth of gallberry and sweet bay bushes, two bucks and two does sprang out of the sparse cover and dashed lithely away, their long effortless leaps made conspicuous by their tall white tails held stiffly erect. I watched them for a full minute, until they disappeared into some young pines. Deciding to look at their beds, I walked into the fragrant greenery. A slight noise made me look back. There was Roland himself! Almost without a sound, and quite near me, he had eased himself from his couch, though waiting until I had passed him to do so. I was amazed at his size and at the tremendous rack he carried. But I was more surprised by his behavior, which had about it the savor of ancient magic. With a certain ponderous grace, one-sided because of his injury, he dashed round my car, and then sped away with that obstacle between us! No alert ruffed grouse ever put a shielding hemlock between himself and a hunter with more swiftness or accuracy than Roland put my own car between us. Of course, I ran to one side so that I could watch him go; and the effect of his gait was to render his size spectacular. With each leap his head would be jerked unnaturally as his right hip sank out of rhythm with his left. He reminded me of some noble vessel, scarred and wounded by her battles with the Horn and with Hatteras, which nevertheless has the speed and the fortitude to make harbor safely.

Roland was heading for a creek that is affected by the tides in the river. Knowing that tide would then be high, I wondered if he would swim across that deep estuary. I was soon to learn.

The next day I asked Peter Small, a Negro woodcutter, if he had seen the great stag; for I knew that he had been working in the woods near the mouth of the creek.

“I done heard him coming,” he told me. “And when he done get to the water, he never stopped. From that high bluff he jumped right in, splashing the water as high as the tops of them young cypresses. But he didn’t swim across. No, sah; he’s too smart for that. He swam down the middle of the creek as far as I could see him, and I know he kept on until he got in the river marsh. . . . The way he swam, no dog could ever follow his scent.”

On that occasion, as on others, I had been close enough to Roland to take careful note of his horns. He carried what is known as a freak head. The left antler was, though exceedingly large, quite normal in shape. It bore five points. The right antler was heavily palmated; and instead of rising from his head and then pitching forward gracefully as did its fellow, it grew backward at a curious angle. It, too, had five points; but its architecture was entirely different from the other. As the freak horn was on the same side as the buck’s injury, I ascribed that growth to his physical disability on the right side. The fact that he was crippled and the fact that he had one-sided horns made Roland a very easy deer to identify. But the distinction of his mentality identified him with more finesse than his physical make-up. Superior sagacity is as easily recognizable in nature as it is among human beings.

On one occasion, at twilight, a solitary hunter attempted to waylay Roland by waiting for him on the high bluff of the Santee River at Fairfield. Some other hunters had roused him on the vast and lonely delta; and it was altogether likely that he would swim the river at that point in order to regain his haunts on the mainland.

On the lofty bank the sportsman waited; and his long vigil was rewarded when he saw a great crown of antlers moving above the yellow tide beneath him. Because of the conformation of the bluff, the stag would, upon coming ashore, be obliged to take a single bypath into the woods. The hunter took up a position within easy range of this path. But along its dusky privacy Roland never appeared! Darkness fell, and the hunter abandoned his quest.

Next morning, upon investigating, he discovered that the wary buck, upon reaching shore, had climbed straight up the bank for about twenty feet, and had there lain down in a wild mass of honeysuckle vines. With enemies behind him, and an enemy in front, he had secreted himself where even his most inveterate intelligent foe would never think of looking for him! He saved his life by a subterfuge as divergent as it was effective.

Even the casual observer recognizes the differences in appearance, temper, intelligence, and general character of domestic creatures of the same kind. In a state of nature these individual traits appear accentuated, perhaps because they are afforded wider freedom for development and yield to their possessors more certain rewards. They do not owe any degree of their individuality to any contact with man.

About them is always the air of primeval genius. Each one could say, “Before man was, I am.”

A grim and elusive monster haunted the deep woods of my plantation for a term of years so long that it might be called a generation. I saw this creature first when, as a bare-footed boy, eight years old, I was running down an old rice field bank over which a freshet-tide was beginning to brim. Seeing what I took to be a log in my path, I instinctively jumped over it, and would have gone straight on, unaware of what I had thus taken liberties with, had not a movement of the object, just as I leaped over it, arrested my attention. About ten feet away I stopped to look back, thinking that the waters had lifted the log, and that I had better be thinking of turning homeward before the rising tide cut off my escape. To my amazement there swam off into the open water a huge diamond-back rattlesnake. His great spade-shaped head was tilted upward. His rattles were held vertically out of the wet. He did not swim straight away from me, but turned parallel to the bank; and the pale sunshine of the late afternoon shone full on him, bringing into clear relief his terrible head. It was forty years ago, but still I see the chill pallor of those cold, contemptuous lips; the massive strength of those set, iron jaws; the basilisk gleams from those eyes of bloodshot topaz.

Besides his head and his tall spire of rattles, one other feature I especially noticed—a peculiar and identifying marking. As he swam, his broad back was partly visible. About a foot from his head there was a curious blotch of muddy white, whether congenital in its origin or whether the result of an injury, I never discovered. But I knew that if I ever saw him again, I should certainly recognize him. Into the dusky swamp, the lower parts of which were now fast being submerged by the insistent freshet, he swam away, a thing primordial, formidable.

Four years later, riding to school through the lonely plantation woods, looking for birds’ nests in the trees bordering the road, I was almost thrown as my horse gave a sudden wild start. After I had checked him, I looked back; and there in the road lay the chimera. My horse was terrified. He kept tossing his head, champing the bit, and now and then he would snort loudly, as if to expel from his nostrils the fatal odor of the rattlesnake. Beneath me I could feel him tremble and shudder.

Dismounting and tying my horse, I secured from the side of the road a big pole, and thus advanced to the attack. The great serpent meanwhile had turned, and was facing me. As soon as I had come within striking distance, I saw below his neck the white splotch of color! Here was my old friend! With all my strength I brought down the pole on his malignant head. My weapon broke, for it was half-rotten; and the only visible effect of the blow was the reptile’s almost complete unconcern. The whole anterior part of his body he reared about a foot off the ground; and thus he awaited my further advances.

By this time my horse had broken away—a proceeding that appealed to me as so exceedingly sensible that I decided to do the very same thing myself. A desire to attend school, which had never before appealed to me in the least, now overtook me. Complete master of the roadway, the monster was left lying there, with the impassive sunshine dully gleaming on his huge bulk. On my return that afternoon, of course he was gone. But the memory of him was vivid to me, and equally so to my horse; because, for a period of several weeks, it was all I could do to get him past that haunted spot.

Three years passed, and during that time nothing further was seen of the chimera with the leprous silver spot on him. Then one evening in the late springtime, when I was riding home with the mail, in the twilight I saw a Negro running toward me down the road. Only panic fear ever makes a human being rim like that. At first I was afraid that he was the bearer of evil tidings; but though the tidings were evil, they were not for me. Indeed, the fugitive came near passing me without even slowing up. I recognized him as Alex Jones, the Negro ferryman of the Santee, and called on him to stop.

He came up to my horse panting, his eyes rolling; and he kept turning his head warily to look down the darkening, mysterious road whence he had come.

“Alex, what kind of a ghost was after you?”

“I b’lieve it’s a gose,” he said.

He then told me that, in taking a short cut down a bush-hung path by Montgomery Branch, just as he was stepping over a log, he heard a dry whirring; and then something struck savagely at him.

“A rattlesnake, Cap’n,” he told me, “and the biggest one in this whole world. But,” he added, “I never yet did see a rattlesnake with a white head.”

It was the chimera, beyond a doubt.

I would have gone to search for the creature; but Alex had no such inclination; and the twilight was falling so fast that it did not seem safe to ride my horse into those haunted, dim thickets.

Two years later, one August day, one of my woodland friends, Claude Marlowe by name, riding the woods after cattle, came on the track of a great diamond-back near Jones Pond. Following the telltale, smooth furrow in the soft sand, he came upon its monstrous maker under a little scrub-oak not far off the road. And that was the end of this serpent’s long odyssey. Seven feet, nine inches he measured, and his weight was formidable. It was my ancient friend and enemy, identified by the dusky white blotch on his neck. It had been full nine years since I had first seen him in the freshet; and he had met death only a mile and a half from the place of our first encounter.

He might have been safely put down as thirty-five to fifty years old; and so rigorous are the laws under which wild creatures must live that mere age carries with it some definite distinction. Great glory therefore should belong to Old Cyclops, the one-eyed bull alligator that still inhabits the dusky bends and the quiet stretches of Wambaw Creek; for, estimating his age by his size, this remarkable minotaur must be a century old. His survival is all the more remarkable because he lives in a region full of human hunters, among them some renowned alligator hunters, including West Mc-Connor, one of the ablest Negro woodsmen I have ever known, and a master strategist in the capture of alligators. One and all have been baffled, however, by this monster’s superior sagacity and intelligence.

In the massive and elaborate “Dictionary of National Biography,” it is a notable fact that there are included not only the good and the great, but their opposites. In the study of animals the same principle holds true: the outcasts are often as diverting and as worth our attention as those of regular conduct. Sinners are always as intriguing as saints. That is why I told about the rattlesnake, and now tell about Cyclops.

Wambaw Creek borders the northern edge of my plantation ; and it is in every way a fit abiding place for a creature like Old Cyclops. The waters drain the vast and melancholy confines of Hell Hole Swamp, a region of primeval loneliness, yet withal of somewhat sinister charm—a beauty that is never quite familiar, never quite smiling. Wine-red are the waters of the creek, like some mysterious beverage that witches quaff. Deep and waveless are they, silent with the living silentness of profound tides. Over the waters great trees arch—massive pines and mighty live-oaks, tupelos and dense-crowned beeches.

Such was and still is the haunt of Old Cyclops, a bull alligator of monstrous size, and of that irregularity of behavior that marks him as a prodigy of his kind.

This great reptile has managed to survive despite his injury, which was probably inflicted long ago by a rifle bullet. When I was a child, nearly fifty years ago, his size, his stealth, his eccentric sagacity, his daring intelligence filled the lonely countryside of my homeland with tales and legends that were all the more appealing because they were tinged with a superstitious dread.

On one occasion he pulled down and devoured with awful precision two famous deer-hounds that essayed to swim Wambaw Creek in pursuit of their quarry. At another time he killed with a single sweep of his massive tail a bull that was feeding in the lush marshes on the borders of his domain.

Hunts were organized against him, but they were fruitless. Lines of massive strength were set for him. All of these but one he ignored. This one hooked him, but he tore all the tackle to pieces, leaving on the sycamore tree to which the line had been tied nothing but the frayed end of a half-inch rope as mute testimony of his prowess and of man’s ineffectiveness. Year after year he continued his depredations on the stock of the neighborhood; and no one seemed able to cope with his wary sagacity.

Several years ago, two scientists from Chicago, having heard of this phenomenal reptile, made the long journey into those wilds to effect the capture of this unique monster. They camped on the lonely banks of Warsaw Creek; they hunted for him; they set lines for him; they lay in ambush for him near the old cypress log on which he was wont to bask. Only once they saw him, for a moment ere he vanished into the mysterious waters. After ten days of fruitless effort, the scientists returned to Chicago, leaving Old Cyclops the sinister mogul of his dim domain.

This bull alligator did a thing that I have never known another one of his kind to do: he killed and devoured a full grown stag. As a rule, the wild deer is immune to the attacks of this saurian; for, while the deer loves to roam those very water-edges haunted by this grim destroyer, the white-tail has an excellent defence in his horns and his lance-like hoofs. Indeed, it is one of the curiosities of nature that the alligator, though an omnivorous creature, does not molest the deer.

Hunting on Elmwood, a party of men had inflicted on this buck some trifling wound. As was natural under the circumstances, the buck headed for water. He essayed to swim Wambaw Creek. But the ruler of those dusky waters waylaid him. Here was a stag weighing perhaps two hundred pounds; and his armament of horns and sharp hoofs was formidable. But Old Cyclops attacked him and drew him under. The amazed hunters, who later recounted the affair to me, declared that they reached the creek bank only in time to see the water near the far shore boiling wildly, to catch a glimpse of the tail of the alligator and the disappearing head of the stag.

After this occurrence I engaged West McConnor, the most renowned alligator hunter of that region, to use his wiles against Old Cyclops. After a month’s trial, the Negro abandoned his attempts. When he told me his decision, there was a light of fear in his eyes, a superstitious apprehension. He declared that Old Cyclops was not an alligator but a Token—a creature of supernatural portent and power. Surely he has a right to lay claim to a certain inimitable distinction. His massive might continues to rule with cruel sagacity the dark and lonely reaches of Wambaw Creek.

It is commonly known that there are genuine wild boars in America. Those with which I am familiar are found in all their pristine size and ferocity in the great Santee Swamp which, for thirty miles northwestward of my plantation, stretches its moss-hung, mysterious, and almost inviolate beauty, semi-tropical, alluring, yet forbidding. A true wild boar is a terrible brute; and in his native fastness he has but one natural enemy—the black bear, which shares with him the supremacy of that lonely wilderness. However, the bears of that region usually confine their attention to immature swine. I fancy that a duel a outrance between a big female bear (always larger and more ferocious than her mate) and a full-grown boar would deserve to draw an immense “gate.”

The first time I ever saw one of these old brigands of the deep river-swamp I had been warned that, if I did see him, I should not molest him. As a barefooted plantation boy nine years old, out on a deer-hunt in the lonely pinelands adjacent to the river, I had been taken aside by Henry Snyder, our Negro foreman and an excellent woodsman, who said to me, “If you see a deer or a fox, shoot at it; but if the old wild boar comes out, let him pass.”

As you might have expected, nothing else came but this same swamp brigand. His presence was first made known to me by his unmistakable penetrant odor. Then above the browsed huckleberry bushes his great gray shape came in sight. A huge creature he was, high in the shoulders, and somewhat like a hyena in contour. But he had not the hyena’s slinking manner. He was as alert as a deer, intrepid, ferocious. His tusks gleamed like drawn scimitars; and he champed his jaws evilly. He passed within a few yards of me, and soon vanished into a thicket.

His character may be judged by the fact that the hounds refused to follow his trail; they noticed it and whined uneasily. The same attitude was assumed by the Negro driver, who looked askance at the formidable track and forward into the thicket into which the monster had gone, with eyes that widened and gleamed with some emotion that certainly was not zeal of pursuit.

This same boar, for several years, took up his abode in the gloomy cellar of a deserted plantation house, and from this obscure fastness made forays at night, raiding the Negroes’ gardens, killing their dogs, and, as one sufferer told me, infecting their swine with a spirit of truculence.

He was hunted, but so great was his wariness, so extraordinary his speed, and so genuine the fear he inspired among most dogs and a good many men that he was never taken. When at last he disappeared from the mainland, every one was relieved, especially the dogs. I believe he swam the river, returning in safety to the savage and inviolate security of the vast river-swamps.

In many ways the most interesting wild personality I ever encountered was not born wild; he was a great black hound that, abandoned after a deer-hunt on a wild sea-island, reverted to nature, and became the most crafty and sagacious as well as the most romantic creature of that lonely and beautiful isle. The island is a game preserve, but poachers visit it; and in the haste of their departure one winter’s day, when the warden was hot on their heels, they left the hound behind. Shortly thereafter the dog’s owner died, and no one ever came to recover him.

As I used to visit the island to see the warden and to assist him in estimating the game there, I was put in the way of learning a good deal of this strange solitary, who had acquired something of a wild proprietorship over that vast domain. The warden had several times seen this extraordinary animal—or at least had had fleeting glimpses of his shadowy form. He called him the Ghost Hound.

Perhaps I can best give an account of the effect of the beleaguering presence of this personage if I try to describe the manner in which he made himself known to me on a moonlit night when I was alone on the island with only a Negro guide for my companion. Richard and I had gone through the shallow marshlands at sundown and through the tattered woodlands of autumn in the tawny afterglow of a ripe autumn day. Out on the spectral sand-dunes we had come just as the moon rose out of the ocean, over the gleaming sands. In the moonlight we stood on the immense and foamy threshold of the sea. The tide was low; there was no wind; and what little surf there was fell drowsily on the tranced shore.

Richard and I had come out in this full moonlight to watch for wild deer on the long sea beach; for they seem to love the seashore as much as men and women do, and will spend hours standing on the dunes gazing at the ocean, or pacing down the beach. I think they do this out of pure enjoyment; for there is no vestige of food of any kind on those sands.

There was so little tumult of the surf that I distinctly heard a great horned owl back in the tall pines give his unearthly call.

“Hear that owl?” I asked Richard.

“Yas, sah,” he answered, unmoved. A Negro runs to the extremes of phlegmatism and emotionalism.

Then there came a peculiar hush; and out of that primeval silence a primeval voice—the long, lonely, pagan hunting-cry of a wolf. My blood tingled.

“That’s no owl,” I said.

Richard edged nearer to me; and even in the moonlight I saw his eyes roll.

“De Ghost Hound,” he muttered; “and dat’s one dog what no man will ever tame.”

He told me that the hound had been five years on the island; that he was utterly wild and solitary; and that he lived by killing the game. In this practice he had developed a peculiar finesse; for while he commonly howled before he hunted, he never gave tongue on the trail. No longer man’s servant, he was a free lance, hunting for himself, and doing the work in grim and devastating silence.

A year later Richard told me that the Ghost Hound had been killed by a white shark as the dog was swimming a narrow inlet between his own domain and an adjacent coastal island. . . .

From such incidents as I have tried faithfully to record we become aware that the creatures of nature are not stereotyped; they too may be tinged with the exciting glamor of personality. Nature has her own “Who’s Who.” Would you discover for yourself such distinguished beasts and birds? With clear eyes, keenly listening ears, and a sympathetic heart take a shy footpath into a modest wood. It may prove a portal to Wonder—an introduction to nature’s “Who’s Who.”


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