The river seemed narrow and dark after the open sea to which the Elmers had been so long accustomed, and from its banks the dense growth of oak, cedar, magnolia, palm, bay, cypress, elm, and sweet gum trees, festooned with moss, and bound together with a net-work of vines, rose like walls, shutting out the sunlight. Strange water-fowl, long-legged and long-billed, flew screaming away as they advanced, and quick splashes in the water ahead of them told of the presence of other animal life.
At sunset they were nearly two miles from St. Mark’s, and opposite a cleared spot on the bank, where was piled a quantity of light-wood or pitch-pine. Here the captain and owner of the lighter, who was a young white man named Oliver Johnson, proposed that they should tie up for the night.
To this Mr. Elmer consented, and as soon as the boat was made fast to the bank, active preparations were begun for cooking supper, and for making everything as snug and comfortable as possible.
A large sail was stretched across some poles, in the form of a tent, over the after-part of the lighter, and beneath this two comfortable beds were made up from the abundant supply of mattresses and blankets belonging to the Elmers. Jan Jansen and Captain Johnson, who, Mark said, must be related, as their names were the same, spread their blankets in the forward end of the boat. On shore the negro crew built for themselves a thatched lean-to of poles and palm-leaves beside the fire, that was already throwing its cheerful light across the dark surface of the river.
While the men were busy arranging the shelters and bedding, Mrs. Elmer and Ruth, assisted by one of the negroes, were cooking supper over a bed of coals that had been raked from the fire. A huge pot of coffee sent forth clouds of fragrant steam, and in two frying-pans some freshly caught fish sizzled and browned in a most gratifying and appetizing manner. In a couple of kettles hung over the fire hominy and sweet potatoes bubbled, boiled, and tried to outdo each other in getting done. Fresh-made bread and a good supply of butter had been brought from the schooner. When the supper was all ready, and spread out on a green table-cloth of palm-leaves, Mark and Ruth declared that this picnic was even jollier than the one on the island of the Florida Reef, and that this was after all one of the very best Christmases they had ever known.
After supper, and when the dishes had all been washed and put away, the Elmers, Captain Johnson, and Jan sought the shelter of the canvas awning from the heavy night-dew which had begun to fall as soon as the sun went down. They lifted the sides, so that they could look out and see the fire around which the crew were gathered. After a while one of these started a plaintive negro melody, which sounded very sweetly through the still air. The others took it up, and they sang for an hour or more, greatly to the delight of the children, to whom such music was new. Many of the words were composed as they sang, and Mark and Ruth could not help laughing at some of them, which, though sung very soberly, sounded funny. One song which they afterwards remembered was: