The Tar Baby and the Tomahawk: Race and Ethnic Images in American Children's Literature, 1880-1939




THE busiest time in a sailor's life is the day before the ship reaches her harbor. On the afternoon before our arrival in Acapulco, the crew of the steamer "Honduras" had to scrub the deck, clean awnings and carpets and wash the gunwales, besides piling up barrels and boxes and all kinds of hardware and heavy freight; and when at last the bell rung for supper, some of them lay down before the mast and left their dishes untouched,—they were too tired to eat. But just before sunset an old tar sauntered up to the railing of the passenger-deck to take a look at a corner behind the caboose, where I had stowed my own baggage. He beckoned one of his comrades, and before long the whole crew were on their legs, crowding around the railing, staring and whispering. Curiousity had get the better of their weariness.

"That man is carrying his own bed along," observed the carpenter; "that hammock there does n't belong to our ship. What has he got in that queer tin box, I wonder?"

"Just look at those funny baskets," said the cook; "they are made of copper wire, it seems. That boy of his has got a pole with a sort of a harpoon: and they have fire-arms, no doubt; they must be seal-hunters, I think."

"That pole looks more like a grappling-hook," whispered the mate; "and did you notice that coil of rope he is sitting on? He has a cutlass, too. They must be smugglers, I guess."

I could not help overhearing their conversation, and their remarks amused me so much that I opened a case with two big Spanish army pistols, to see if they would take us for disguised pirates.

But I have no right to make fun of my readers, so I had better tell them at once. Those hook-poles, wire baskets and things were part of a hunter's outfit, and we were on our way to the wilds of the American tropics, to catch pets for a French menagerie. About nine years ago, the city of Marseilles, in southern France, was overrun with fugitive soldiers and vagabonds, and one stormy night in midwinter the buildings of the zoological garden caught fire, and thousands of living and stuffed rare animals were destroyed; for the garden also contained a museum and a large menagerie-depot, where showmen and private persons could buy all the curiousities they wanted. The citizens clamored for a new Zoo, but the town was very poor just then, and being unable to get animals for Euro-
pean cities at reasonable prices, they decided to send out agents to the tropics, and open a menagerie-depot of their own. Two commissioners went to the East Indies, one to Africa, and I was sent to America. They had only one assistant to spare, and he was engaged by the East Indian party; so I took my nephew Tommy along, a boy of fourteen, who had been in the Pyrenees Mountains with his father, and could talk Spanish nearly as well as his native language.

Besides Tommy, I had a Mexican lad to take care of our pack-mule, and a half-Indian guide,—Daddy Simon, as his countrymen called him,—an old fellow, who had been all over Spanish America and knew every village in Southern Mexico. Menito, our little muleteer, was not much older than Tommy, and as mischievious as a monkey, but not a bad boy, and a sort of Jack-at-all-trades. He could wash and cook, mend shoes and harness-[illustration - In the depths of the wonderland.] gear, saddle a mule, and paddle a canoe through the heaviest surf. His father had been a sailor, he said; but he would never tell us where he had spent the last two years; I am afraid he had run away from home. Black Betsy, our mule, was a native of Lower California, heavy built and a powerful eater, but good-natured, like most over-grown creatures. Her best friend in the world was a shaggy deer-hound that had been brought from the same country, and had slept in her straw since we left San Francisco. His Mexican name was Rugerio, but we always called him Rough.

Poor Tom had been sea-sick for a day or two, and was very glad when I told him that this was our last night on board. When the sun went down, the coast was veiled by a sea-fog, but toward midnight we could see the moonlit crest of the peak of Las Vegas, and soon after the lights of a little sea-port town glittered on the horizon like rising stars. Sailors have other ways of sighting the coast at night,—they can often tell it by the white mist that hovers over the moise coast-swamps; and a Portuguese ship, having lost her bearings, and approaching the coast of Cuba in a stormy night, was once saved by an Indian sailor, who recognized the smell of the mountain forests, where thousands of basalm-firs were in full bloom.

With the first glimmer of dawn we were on deck again, and when the sun rose it gilded a long range of coast-hills, capped with clouds which here and there revealed a glimpse of the inland Sierras, the wonderland of nature, with its snowy heights and evergreen valleys.

"Do you see that glittering streak yonder?" said the captain. "That glittering water-line in the gap of the coast-hills? That's the valley of the Rio Balsas; if you are going to cross the Sierras, you will have to follow that river right up to the highlands."

When we approached the harbor, we heard the boom of a tumultuous sea, and we thought the breakers looked somewhat dangerous, till a little pilot-boat came dancing through the surf, so light and swift that we became ashamed of our apprehensions. The landing was rather rough; but storm, danger and sea-sickness were now all forgotten—we had reached the harbor of Acapulco. My Tommy leaped ashore with a loud hurrah, and Black Betsy cantered up the steep bank as if the pack on her back were merely a feather. The poor creature little knew through what thickets and over what mountains she would have to carry that same pack before long.

There were several hotels near the landing, but at Daddy Simon's and Menito's earnest request, I permitted the old man to guide us to a grassy dell at the mouth of the river, where we pitched our tent under a clump of hackberry trees, for our Mexicans were anxious to show their great skill in cooking and camping.

As soon as we had put our tent in order, I left old Simon in charge of the camp, and took the two boys to the market-place, where pets of all kinds could be bought like pigs and cattle in our agricultural fairs. Nearly every huckster had a song-bird or a tame squirrel for sale, and in some of the larger booths we found parrots and monkeys at astonishingly low prices. They asked twenty cents for a squirrel-monkey, and sixty for a young ant-bear, and only two dollars for a fine talking parrot. Armadillos and tame snakes could be bought on the street for a few pennies.

We bought a monkey from a street peddler for half a dollar. The same man sold us a tame badger for sixty cents, and on the wharf we met a couple of fisher-boys who had a still stranger pet, a big tortoise that followed them like a dog, and permitted the little child to ride on its back. We bought it, too, for a French merchant showed us the house of an honest gardener, who had a large empty store-room, and who agreed to take care of our Acapulco animals, and feed them half a year for ten dollars. We understood how he could do it so cheap, when we found out that bananas are sold in Acapulco like turnips, by the wagon-load, and that a netful of fish can be bought for a few coppers.

Our plan was to leave a lot of animals in every large place we passed through, and after we were[illustration - The peaks of Las Vegas.] done, a freight agent from Marseilles was to collect them and ship them to France.

I finished all my private business in Acapulco that same day, and early the next morning we passed through the town in full marching order, and took the overland road that leads across the mountains toward the virgin woods of Chiapas and Tabasco.

"Good luck! Good luck to you, friends!" cried the neighbors, when we passed through the city-gate; they took us for a party of gold-hunters on the way to the mountain mines. We might certainly think ourselves lucky in having started so early, for an hour later, when the high road was covered with cars and riders, the dust became almost suffocating; and when a Mexican stage-coach whirled by at a full gallop, we hardly could see the head of the adelantero or outrider, with his broad hat and fluttering scarf: all the rest was one big cloud of blinding dust.

"Never mind," said our guide, "we soon shall reach the river-road, and leave the highway far to
the right, and up in the mountains there is hardly any dust at all."

The river-road proved to be a mere trail. Ten miles east of Acapulco, the river-valley became narrow, the trees and bushes looked much fresher, and the ravines were covered with flowering shrubs. We had reached our first hunting-grounds.

"Why, uncle, look here!" cried Tommy, "here are some of the same butterflies that are sold for half a dollar apiece in the Marseilles curiousity-shops,—oh, and look at that big blue one! Stop, Menito, let me get my butterfly-catcher. Please get the press, uncle; we can catch ten dollars' worth of curiousities right here!"

The "press" was a sort of paper box with leaves like a book, for preserving butterflies and small beetles. For big beetles we had a wide-necked bottle with ether. Rough, the deer-hound, soon joined in the chase, though he could find nothing to suit him; we were still in the Vega, in the Acapulco horse-pastures, where game is very scarce. At last, he made a dash into a bramble-bush, but sprang back as if he had seen a snake.

"Come here, quick!—all of you!" shouted Tommy; "have you ever seen such a lizard?—two feet long and as red as a lobster. Hurrah! Here we are!"

[illustration - Sea-eagles fighting.]

The lizard scampered across the meadow like a rabbit, with Tommy at its heels, but soon distanced its pursuer, and hid out of sight. Lizards seemed to enjoy sunshine more than other creatures; at noon, when the sun is directly overhead, even the butterflies retired into the shade, or fluttered near the ground, as if the head had scorched their tender wings; but lizards of all sizes and colors darted through the grass and basked on the sunny faces of the way-side rocks.

"I wonder if that river water is fit to drink," said Tommy.

"Better wait till we reach a spring," I replied; "Mr. Simon will show us a place where we can eat our dinner, by and by."

"I do not know about any good drinking-water in this neighborhood," said the Indian; "but I'll tell you what we can do: there's a deserted convent twelve miles from here, an old building with two good halls and a fine garden, where we can eat our supper."

"Does anybody live there?" I asked.

"No, sir; only an espectroor two," said he.

"A what?"

"It used to be a convent, senor, and they say that there's an espectro there now,—a ghost that's watching the money the monks buried before they left. But he won't hurt us if we sleep there for one night only."

"Is there any good drinking-water there?"

"Yes, sir; a fine spring,—just the place for camp; only—I'm afraid the boys will get tired before we reach there."

"Not I," said Tommy, stoutly; "Daddy is right; we ought to keep on till we reach a good place."

"Of course," laughed Menito; "let's go and see the ghost and have some fun. I shall ask him where he keeps that money."

"Captain, I fear that 's a bad boy," said the old Indian; "we had better watch him, and stuff a handkerchief into his mouth if the ghost should come 'round; those espectros wont stand much."

As we kept steadily uphill, the river-valley became deeper and narrower, and at the next turn of the road we entered a forest of pistachio pines, where we lost sight of the coast. The ground became rocky, and there was nothing to remind us of the neighborhood of the ocean excepting some white-winged sea-eagles, that flew up and down the river, and often rose with a fish in their claws. One of them dropped a big fish in mid-air, and another eagle snatched it before it touched the water; but the rightful owner pursued him with loud screams, and, while they were fighting, the fish dropped again, and this time reached the water in time to escape. Here and there the pistachios were mixed with the other trees, and a little farther up we came across a fallen fir-tree, that looked as if somebody had been cutting pitch-chips out of it.

"There must be a house very near here," said Menito; "there 's a smell in the air like roasted acorns."

"No; only an Indian wigwam," said Daddy Simon; "look down there,—you can see their smoke going up. It 's a family of Pinto Indians; they build no houses, but sleep in hammocks with some big tree for their roof."

"Let 's go and see them," I said; "may be they have monkeys or birds for sale."


Before we reached the wigwam, a curly-headed little child ran up to us with outstretched hands.

"Please gimme a copper," he cried; "I will be[illustration - Mexican fisher-boys] a good Johnny; will you gimme a copper now?"

"Certainly," laughed Tommy; "here is one; where 's your father?"

"Behind that tree," said the boy; "he 's skinning a cully for supper."

The cully, or culebra, was a big fat snake, dangling from the projecting bough of a pine-tree. The Indian had almost finished skinning the snake, and I am afraid they were actually going to eat it.

"Why, that 's an ugly-sized reptile,—a regular boa," said I. "How did you manage to kill such a monster? Have you a gun?"

"No, we are very poor, senor," said the Pinto. "I killed it with this," showing us a heavy bigonia-wood bow.

The family seemed to be very poor, indeed; all their house-hold stuff might have been removed in a wheelbarrow. Their hammock was made of a sort of matting, like coarse coffee-bagging, and the entire cooking outfit consisted of an iron kettle and two forked sticks. The old squaw was roasting acorns for supper; there is an oak-tree growing in southern Mexico which our botanists call the Quercus Ilex, and whose acorns taste almost like hazel-nuts, and often are baked into a sort of sweetish bread. Near the hammock, some twenty gray squirrels were strung up. I asked about them.

"They hide in hollow trees," explained the old Pinto, "and we drive them out by lighting a fire underneath, and shoot them as fast as they come."

"Look here, captain, they have a monkey," said Menito. Our curly-headed young friend was toddling around with a little tamarin-monkey in his arms, hugging and patting it as if nursing a baby. But Tommy drew me aside.

"Please, uncle, don't take that monkey away," said he, "may be, those poor boys have no other plaything in the world."

"Have you any birds you would like to sell?" I asked the young squirrel-hunter.

"No, sir," said he; "nothing but a few chickens; but there is a humming-bird's nest in that bush over yonder."

He took us to a large catalpa-bush, at the brink of a river, and pointed to one of the top branches. I bent the bough down and found that the bird had fastened its nest to the lower side of a large leaf, so deftly and cunningly that one might have passed that bush a dozen times without noticing anything.

Before we left the wigwam, Tommy gave the little curly-head another copper.


"That 's right," said the little fellow. "Now gimme your gun, too, please? What for? To shoot my monkey," said the little Indian.

"Why, you bad boy," laughed Tom; "did n't you promise us you would be a good Johnny?"

"I wont shoot him altogether," said Johnny. "I just want to shoot his head off, because he's making such faces at me."

The sun had already disappeared behind the south-western coast-hills when we sighted the ruins of the convent, on a steep bluff of limestone rocks. We had some difficulty in getting our mule up; but Daddy Simon was right; it was a splendid place for a camping-ground. In front of the building there was a broad terrace, and a little grass-plot, strewn with broken stones; the lawn was surrounded with a wildering thicket of briers and flowering shrubs, and the upper part of the inclosure seemed to have been an orchard, for near the garden wall the grass was covered with figs and centrinos, as the Spaniards call a sort of wild lemon with a pleasant aromatic scent. Hawk-moths of all sizes swarmed about the shrubbery, and the air was filled with the perfume of honeysuckle and parnassia flowers. At the lower end of the garden there were two fine springs that formed a little rivulet at their junction, and farther down, a pond, where we had a good wash, and then, finding that we could dispense with a tent for this night, we all encamped on the terrace around our provision-box. We had neither tea nor coffee, but the cool spring-water, with centrinosand a little sugar, made an excellent lemonade, and after our forced march we would not have exchanged our free and easy picnic for a banquet in the palace of Queen Victoria.

"There comes the moon," said I. "Do you think you could find a few more lemons, boys?"

"Yes, try," said the Indian. "I am going to fetch another bucket of water."

After ten or fifteen minutes, Menito at last returned, with a whole hatful of centrinos.

"I found the best place in the garden," said he. "The top of that wall is just covered with them. Why! Where is Daddy?"

"Listen!" said Tom. "He's down there, talking to somebody. "Oh, here he comes!"

"Why, Mr. Simon, that's not fair," said Menito. "If you met that specter you ought to have told us, so we could get our share of the money."

"That tongue of yours will get us all into trouble yet," said Mr. Simon. "No, no; it's old Mrs. Yegua, the widow who lives on her little farm down in the hollow. She says her own spring is nearly dry. Come up, Mrs. Yegua!"

A strange figure appeared on the moonlit terrace—a figure that would have looked rather specter-like, indeed, if one had met her unawares; our dog, at least, retreated with a frightened growl when she hobbled up the steps, with a bucket in one hand and a big stick in the other. She had only one garment, a sack-like gown without sleeves, but with a collar-flap that went over her head like a hood.

"How do you all do?" said she, shaking hands with us like an old acquaintance. "My spring turned brackish again," said she, "just like the year before last, you know. Mr. Simon here tells me that he saw my Josy in Acapulco."

She then sat down and told us a long story about her grandson Jose, who had enlisted in the Mexican army for a drummer, and would be a major by and by. "Well, I must go," said she, at last. "I 'm glad I found you all in good health."

"Would n't you take supper with us before you go?" said I. "Here, try some of these cakes, Mrs. Yegua."

"No, thank you," said the old lady, putting her hand on Menito's shoulder; "but if you want to do me a favor, I would ask you to lend me this boy for ten minutes to-morrow morning.

"Certainly; but what can he do for you?"

"I 'll tell you what it is," said she; "there's a troop of monos(ceboo monkeys) in that caucho-wood behind my place, and they rob me nearly every day, and I can't stand it any longer. Yesterday they broke into my corn-crib, and this morning again; now, if I had a slim little chap, like this lad, to hide behind the door, we could catch every one of them."

"Will you give us the monkeys if we catch them?" asked Menito.

"Yes," said she, "you can take them; but, please, don't be too hard on them."

"Why not?"

"They are my only neighbors, you see," said Mrs. Yegua, "and I should not like to get them into trouble if I could help it."

"Why? What would you do with them?"

"I meant to lock them up and keep them on fair rations," said she. "If they run at large, they take about ten times more than they need; they somehow seem to have no principles at all."

"Very well, Mrs. Yegua," said I. "I 'll send Menito over at any time you like."

"Yes, please send him early," said she; "we 'll manage it between us two. I know I can fight them if I have them under lock and key."

The next morning we dispatched Menito at day-break, and, after helping Daddy to pack the mule, we all went down to the farm to witness Mrs. Yegua's fight with her monkey-neighbors.

(To be continued.)