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A short story by Charles M. Skinner

Storied Springs

Title:     Storied Springs
Author: Charles M. Skinner [More Titles by Skinner]

Like the Greeks, the red men endowed the woods and waters with tutelary sprites, and many of the springs that are now resorted to as fountains of healing were known long before the settlement of Europeans here, the gains from drinking of them being ascribed to the beneficence of spirit guardians. The earliest comers to these shores--or, rather, the earliest of those who entertained such beliefs--fancied that the fabled fountain of eternal youth would be found among the other blessings of the land. To the Spaniards Florida was a land of promise and mystery. Somewhere in its interior was fabled to stand a golden city ruled by a king whose robes sparkled with precious dust, and this city was named for the adventurer--El Dorado, or the Place of the Gilded One. Here, they said, would be found the elixir of life. The beautiful Silver Spring, near the head of the Ocklawaha, with its sandy bottom plainly visible at the depth of eighty feet, was thought to be the source of the life-giving waters, but, though Ponce de Leon heard of this, he never succeeded in fighting his way to it through the jungle.

In Georgia, in the reputed land of Chicora, were a sacred stream that made all young again who bathed there, and a spring so delectable that a band of red men, chancing on it in a journey, could not leave it, and are there forever.

In the island of "Bimini," one of the Lucayos (Bahamas), was another such a fountain.

Between the Flint and Ocmulgee Rivers the Creeks declared was a spring of life, on an island in a marsh, defended from approach by almost impenetrable labyrinths,--a heaven where the women were fairer than any other on earth.

The romantic and superstitious Spaniards believed these legends, and spent years and treasure in searching for these springs. And, surely, if the new and striking scenes of this Western world caused Columbus to "boast that he had found the seat of paradise, it will not appear strange that Ponce de Leon should dream of discovering the fountain of youth."

The Yuma Apaches had been warned by one of their oracles never to enter a certain canon in Castle Dome range, Arizona, but a company of them forgot this caution while in chase of deer, and found themselves between walls of pink and white fluorite with a spring bubbling at the head of the ravine. Tired and heated, they fell on their faces to drink, when they found that the crumbling quartz that formed the basin of the spring was filled with golden nuggets. Eagerly gathering up this precious substance, for they knew what treasure of beads, knives, arrows, and blankets the Mexicans would exchange for it, they attempted to make their way out of the canon; but a cloudburst came, and on the swiftly rising tide all were swept away but one, who survived to tell the story. White men have frequently but vainly tried to find that spring.

In Southwestern Kansas, on a hill a quarter-mile from Solomon River, is the Sacred Water, pooled in a basin thirty feet across. When many stand about the brink it slowly rises. Here two Panis stopped on their return from a buffalo hunt, and one of them unwittingly stepped on a turtle a yard long. Instantly he felt his feet glued to the monster's back, for, try as he might, he could not disengage himself, and the creature lumbered away to the pool, where it sank with him. There the turtle god remains, and beads, arrows, ear-rings, and pipes that are dropped in, it swallows greedily. The Indians use the water to mix their paint with, but never for drinking.

The mail rider, crossing the hot desert of Arizona, through the cacti and over holes where scorpions hide, makes for Devil's Well, under El Diablo--a dark pool surrounded with gaunt rocks. Here, coming when the night is on, he lies down, and the wind swishing in the sage--brush puts him to sleep. At dawn he wakens with the frightened whinny of his horse in his ears and, all awake, looks about him. A stranger, wrapped in a tattered blanket, is huddled in a recess of the stones, arrived there, like himself, at night, perhaps. Poising his rifle on his knee, the rider challenges him, but never a sign the other makes. Then, striding over to him, he pulls away the blanket and sees a shrivelled corpse with a face that he knows--his brother. Hardly is this meeting made when a hail of arrows falls around. His horse is gone. The Apaches, who know no gentleness and have no mercy, have manned every gap and sheltering rock. With his rifle he picks them off, as they rise in sight with arrows at the string, and sends them tumbling into the dust; but, when his last bullet has sped into a red man's heart, they rise in a body and with knives and hatchets hew him to death. And that is why the Devil's Well still tastes of blood.

Among the Balsam Mountains of Western North Carolina is a large spring that promises refreshment, but, directly that the wayfarer bends over the water, a grinning face appears at the bottom and as he stoops it rises to meet his. So hideous is this demon that few of the mountaineers have courage to drink here, and they refuse to believe that the apparition is caused by the shape of the basin, or aberrated reflection of their own faces. They say it is the visage of a "haunt," for a Cherokee girl, who had uncommon beauty, once lived hard by, and took delight in luring lovers from less favored maidens. The braves were jealous of each other, and the women were jealous of her, while she--the flirt!--rejoiced in the trouble that she made. A day fell for a wedding--that of a hunter with a damsel of his tribe, but at the hour appointed the man was missing. Mortified and hurt, the bride stole away from the village and began a search of the wood, and she carried bow and arrows in her hand. Presently she came on the hunter, lying at the feet of the coquette, who was listening to his words with encouraging smiles. Without warning the deserted girl drew an arrow to the head and shot her lover through the heart--then, beside his lifeless body, she begged Manitou to make her rival's face so hideous that all would be frightened who looked at it. At the words the beautiful creature felt her face convulse and shrivel, and, rushing to the mirror of the spring, she looked in, only to start back in loathing. When she realized that the frightful visage that glared up at her was her own, she uttered a cry of despair and flung herself into the water, where she drowned.

It is her face--so altered as to disclose the evil once hid behind it--that peers up at the hardy one who passes there and knows it as the Haunted Spring.

The medicinal properties of the mineral springs at Ballston and Saratoga were familiar to the Indians, and High Rock Spring, to which Sir William Johnson was carried by the Mohawks in 1767 to be cured of a wound, was called "the medicine spring of the Great Spirit," for it was believed that the leaping and bubbling of the water came from its agitation by hands not human, and red men regarded it with reverence.

The springs at Manitou, Colorado (see "Division of Two Tribes"), were always approached with gifts for the manitou that lived in them.

The lithia springs of Londonderry, New Hampshire, used to be visited by Indians from the Merrimack region, who performed incantations and dances to ingratiate themselves with the healing spirit that lived in the water. Their stone implements and arrow-heads are often found in adjacent fields.

The curative properties of Milford Springs, New Hampshire, were revealed in the dream of a dying boy.

A miracle spring flowed in the old days near the statue of the Virgin at White Marsh, Maryland.

Biddeford Pool, Maine, was a miracle pond once a year, for whoso bathed there on the 26th of June would be restored to health if he were ill, because that day was the joint festival of Saints Anthelm and Maxentius.

There was a wise and peaceable chief of the Ute tribe who always counselled his people to refrain from war, but when he grew old the fiery spirits deposed him and went down to the plains to give battle to the Arapahoe. News came that they had been defeated in consequence of their rashness. Then the old man's sorrow was so keen that his heart broke. But even in death he was beneficent, for his spirit entered the earth and forthwith came a gush of water that has never ceased to flow--the Hot Sulphur Springs of Colorado. The Utes often used to go to those springs to bathe--and be cured of rheumatism--before they were driven away.

Spring River, Arkansas, is nearly as large at its source as at its mouth, for Mammoth Spring, in the Ozark Mountains, where it has its rise, has a yield of ninety thousand gallons a minute, so that it is, perhaps, the largest in the world. Here, three hundred years ago, the Indians had gathered for a month's feast, for chief Wampahseesah's daughter--Nitilita--was to wed a brave of many ponies, a hundred of which he had given in earnest of his love. For weeks no rain had fallen, and, while the revel was at its height, news came that all the rivers had gone dry. Several young men set off with jars, to fill them at the Mississippi, and, confident that relief would come, the song and dance went on until the men and women faltered from exhaustion. At last, Nitilita died, and, in the wildness of his grief, the husband smote his head upon a rock and perished too. Next day the hunters came with water, but, incensed by their delay, the chief ordered them to be slain in sacrifice to the manes of the dead. A large grave was dug and the last solemnities were begun when there was a roaring and a shaking in the earth--it parted, and the corpses disappeared in the abyss. Then from the pit arose a flood of water that went foaming down the valley. Crazed with grief, remorse, and fear, Wampahseesah flung himself into the torrent and was borne to his death. The red men built a dam there later, and often used to sit before it in the twilight, watching, as they declared, the faces of the dead peering at them through the foam.

During the rush for the California gold-fields in the '50's a party took the route by Gila River, and set across the desert. The noon temperature was 120, the way was strewn with skeletons of wagons, horses, and men, and on the second night after crossing the Colorado the water had given out. The party had gathered on the sands below Yuma, the men discussing the advisability of returning, the women full of apprehension, the young ones crying, the horses panting; but presently the talk fell low, for in one of the wagons a child's voice was heard in prayer: "Oh, good heavenly Father, I know I have been a naughty girl, but I am so thirsty, and mamma and papa and baby all want a drink so much! Do, good God, give us water, and I never will be naughty again." One of the men said, earnestly, "May God grant it!" In a few moments the child cried, "Mother, get me water. Get some for baby and me. I can hear it running." The horses and mules nearly broke from the traces, for almost at their feet a spring had burst from the sand-warm, but pure. Their sufferings were over. The water continued to flow, running north for twenty miles, and at one point spreading into a lake two miles wide and twenty feet deep. When emigration was diverted, two years later, to the northern route and to the isthmus, New River Spring dried up. Its mission was over.

[The end]
Charles M. Skinner's short story: Storied Springs