“Sambo, the Life-Saving Horse” was written in January, 1968, by Allie (Teenie) Scott. This sweet story was never finished, but it provides a glimpse into the everyday life of summer visitors to Ocracoke in the early part of the 20th century.
Teenie’s daughter, Jen Esham, shared the story with me. The Scotts of Ocracoke are descended from Agnes Scott, for whom Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, was named. For more information on Agnes Scott and her Ocracoke descendants, please click here.
Teenie dedicated the story ” to the memory of Mr. Sime [Simon Garrish Jr. – B. 02-11-1865 D. 08-04-1935] and Sambo, and to the family who lived in the white house by the shore [the Ralph and Jennie Scott family], and who loved them both—”
Sambo was a pretty bay horse, who lived at the life saving station on Ocracoke Island. He did not live inside the white life saving station fence, as he did not belong to the Government. He belonged to Mr. Simon Garrish, who was one of the life saving crew at the station.
There were two horses who lived inside the fence. They were Pat and Staleg, two large dapple grey Percherons (draft horses) and they lived in a grey shingled stable that matched the other buildings in the station yard. Pat and Staleg were big and strong, and they were used to pull the heavy surf boat and life saving equipment over to the beach in times of ship wrecks.
Sambo lived in a nice little white stable with a white fence around it. The path that went to the life saving station ran right by his fence, and everyone going to the station went in front of his yard. Also most of the people that came to the Island came by this path, as the path went on to the “Ditch” where the mailboat and other boats docked, and everyone that came here had to come by boat, as there was no highway or cars then.
Sambo could look out over his fence to Cockle Creek around which the village was built. He could see all the gas boats and sail boats that came into the creek, and he knew most of them. He could also look across the creek and see the tall white lighthouse. And he knew when the lighthouse was lit, it was time for him to go into his stable and go to sleep.
On one side of Sambo’s yard was a thicket of sweet myrtle bushes and cedar trees, and in front of this thicket was a shady patch full of luscious green grass. Sambo was a friendly horse, and had lots of friends. He may have been a little bit spoiled, too. Whenever he saw anyone coming, he would go to the corner of his yard, which was near the patch of grass, and stick his head over the fence. His friends would always pick a handful of grass and give him, and sometimes even the strangers that came on the mailboat would stop and give him some grass.
At the side of Sambo’s yard, there was a little footpath that led through the sweet myrtle thicket, onto a croquet ground, and thence on to a white house surrounded by live oaks and cedar trees that stood on the edge of the water. Here lived some of Sambo’s dearest friends. This family came to the island in June every year and stayed until September. This was a big family, and some of them were grown up, but there were four little girls who were Sambo’s special friends. They would come to see him several times every day, and pick him grass. Sambo would watch for them coming through the myrtle thicket. The three oldest girls had long black curly hair. The baby’s hair was lighter and shorter. It just curled up on her head, and she was so little she wore rompers instead of a dress.
The two oldest girls would pick a handful of grass, and give it to Sambo, and pat him on his nose, and say “nice old Sambo.” Then the next little girl, who was the tomboy, would climb up on the fence with her grass for Sambo. She would pat him on the nose, and say “nice old Sambo.” Sometimes she’d even kiss him on the nose.
Then the 2 oldest girls would hold up the baby, and Sambo would nibble the grass from one of her chubby little hands while with the other hand she patted Sambo like the bigger girls did, and said “nice Sambo.” Sambo always nibbled the grass very carefully when baby held it up, as he didn’t want to hurt her tiny fingers.
On the days that the girls went over to the beach bathing, they would always stop by Sambo’s stable on the way back to the house. The salt ocean water would have dried on them, and they would also be sandy, so that when they reached up and gave him grass to eat, it had a salty and sandy taste. It reminded him of the beach grass that he used to eat when he was a colt and lived down at the other end of the island, which was called “Down Below.”
Mr. Sime loved Sambo, and Sambo loved Mr. Sime, and they worked well together. Mr. Sime rode Sambo when he patrolled the beach, and it seemed that they could almost tell what the other one was thinking.
It was the duty of the men from the Ocracoke Station to patrol one half of the beach, which was about 7 miles, and the crew from the Hatteras Inlet Station (which was located at the end of Ocracoke beach then) patrolled the other half.
When Sambo first went on patrol with Mr. Sime, he always wanted to play and run when he reached the hard damp sand at the edge of the ocean, but Mr. Sime always pulled him back. “No, Sambo,” he said, “we must never shirk our duty – someone’s life may depend on it.”
Then Mr. Sime would pull Sambo to a stand still, and he would carefully scan the dark sea and beach for any sign of distress, and after the first two or three times, Sambo found himself looking just as carefully as Mr. Sime, so that man and horse both looked together. Then they would start slowly down the beach, still on the lookout for anything amiss, and they would keep on until they reached the watch house, and could punch the clock, which showed that they had made their patrol. Sambo took great pride in placing his dainty feet so that Mr. Sime would have a smooth ride, and sometimes Mr. Sime would reach over and pat Sambo when they stopped at the watch house. “Good old Sammy,” he would say, “I could never make it without you,” and Sambo would turn and nuzzle his soft nose against Mr. Sime.
Sometimes on a calm night as they started back up the beach, Mr. Sime would light up his pipe, and this always pleased Sambo. He felt like everything was all right, and he would put down his feet extra careful, so that he would not jar Mr. Sime.
But not all patrols were so pleasant. Sambo had been on patrol with Mr. Sime in the cold winter time when Mr. Sime had on his sou-wester, and when icy spray lashed them both, and froze on Mr. Sime’s mustache. When they reached the ocean’s edge and stopped, Mr. Sime always said, “God pity the sailors on a night like this! We must be extra careful tonight, Sambo.”
And so they would start down the beach, ever watchful for a flare of light in the beach sky that would signify a vessel in distress. The beach stretched dark and seemingly endless before them, and sometimes Sambo felt like they couldn’t keep on, as the wind drove sleet into his skin like icy needles, but they always kept plodding on. I have to keep on, said Sambo to himself, as he put one foot before the other. I cannot shirk my duty. When at last they reached the station cold and numb, Mr. Sime always rubbed Sambo down and gave him extra oats before he went in the station and warmed himself. “Good boy, Sambo,” he would say, “It was a bit rough tonight, wasn’t it?”
Sambo took pride in his work. He had seen ships wreck on Ocracoke beach, proud vessels driven by storms onto the shoals and big waves pounding them and breaking over their bow. Then Pat and Staleg would haul the big surf boat and other equipment to the beach, and some members of the crew would attempt to launch the boat in the giant waves to go out to the ship, while others would attempt to torpedo a line to the mast of the stricken ship. If the line could be secured to the mast, then they would send out the breeches buoy, which was a little seat made round like a life preserver and with openings to put your legs in, and would carry one person, and operated on a pulley. The other end of the line was made fast on the shore, and when one person reached shore in the breeches buoy, they would keep sending it out, until all the people were ashore, or until the mast gave away. Sometimes the ship would break up and the mast would fall before they could get ashore in the breeches buoy. Sometimes survivors could be rescued by the surf boat, and sometimes they could hold on to wreckage. Sambo had seen the Ocracoke crew risk their lives time and again in an effort to save lives.
Sambo remembered one wreck in particular. It was a handsome vessel that wrecked on the lower end of the island. Many of the passengers on this ship were drowned, among them a little girl. When Sambo first saw her, her body had washed ashore, and was lying in shallow water at the edge of the beach. Her long hair was floating in the water, and it reminded him of his little friends, and he was very sad.
Sambo could tell when Sunday came even before he saw the men who were on liberty for the day leaving the station, dressed in their white starched uniforms. They would be leaving to go home for the day, and to go to church with their families. If Mr. Sime were going on liberty, he would always fix Sambo nice and comfortable before he left. He would get him plenty of nice cool water, and a goodly supply of oats, and give him an extra currying with the curry comb. “I want your coat to look extra nice for Sunday,” he would say, giving him the final strokes with the comb, “and now I must go and curry myself so I can go to church.” Then he would pat Sambo on the head. “Be good while I’m gone, Sammy,” he would say, and Sambo would nudge him affectionately on the neck with his soft nose, as if to say, “I promise to be good!”
But Sambo could feel that it was Sunday even before the men came out dressed in white. The day always seemed to be softer and quieter than other days. The women still called “diddle, diddle, diddle” when they fed their chickens, but they seemed to call softer, and it seemed to Sambo that the lazy seagulls circling overhead where not as noisy, but acted with more decorum on Sundays. The leaves on the big live oak tree rustled gently in the soft breeze, and the mockingbird that lived in its boughs gave forth with a beautiful song that sounded like a hymn to the morning.
It was quieter than usual over at his little friends’ home. Sambo knew that they were in the house dressing to go to church. He knew that they wouldn’t stop by today with their sandy bathing dresses on and their hands tasting salty from the surf, and give him salty tasting grass. He knew that the little girls’ mother said that they had all week long to play in the water, but that on the Sabbath they went to church and thanked God for all their blessings. Sometimes when the little girls’ papa was at the island, Sambo could look over his back fence, and see him in the water at the side of their house, but Sambo knew that he wasn’t taking a swim, because the papa said that he couldn’t bathe with a pitcher and bowl, and he said he was only taking a bath, so that was all right. Sometimes too, when the grandchildren were there, Sambo would see little babies playing in the water with the papa, but that was all right, too. Sambo knew that little babies didn’t have to go to church, because they had not been long come from God, and their little souls were still pure and happy.
Not too long after Sambo’s friends disappeared down the lane, he heard the sound of singing and he came to the front of his yard to listen. The music was wafting over the quiet waters of Cockle Creek, and Sambo knew that it came from the southern church which was located near the end of the creek. He stood still and pricked up his ears, and was pleased to hear the words of his favorite hymn.
“Brightly beams our father’s mercy
From his lighthouse evermore.
But to us he gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore.”
As Sambo heard the words, he looked up proudly at the ancient white structure of the lighthouse. Sambo was glad that they were singing about the lighthouse, for he had no doubt that they meant this one. This was the only lighthouse that he had ever seen since he had never been off of the island. He had seen the light shining from the lighthouse at Cape Hatteras, when he was far down the beach, but he was sure that no other lighthouse could compare to this one. And, he thought, just like the people are singing, it was his and Mr. Sime’s duty to guard along the shore.
Presently the singing died away, and all was quiet again, but Sambo still stood, looking out over his fence. The creek lay before him, calm under the Sunday skies, and he could see in the still water the reflection of the little white boats tied to the wharves, and also see reflected the blue sky and fleecy white clouds. The sweet myrtles near his fence were a soft green, with the darker green of the cedars in the background. Further away was the big live oak tree, hung with grey moss, and which was of a grayer green than the cedars. This was the tree in which the mocking bird lived, and Sambo could see her darting in and out to her nest in the leaves. A soft breeze was coming in from the Sound, and rippling through the myrtle leaves, and Sambo could feel it gently fanning him. A feeling of happiness possessed him. He had heard Mr. sime state that the Bible said that the Lord had made the earth in six days and had rested on the seventh day, and had looked around on his work and found it good. The Lord must have rested at Ocracoke, thought Sambo, for he surely would have found it good.
Just then, a big butterfly floated into Sambo’s yard, and all serious thought left him. He ran around the yard after the butterfly. He really didn’t want to catch the butterfly, or if he did, he certainly would not hurt her, but it was great fun to gallop around after her, and to toss his mane and tail in the air.
After the dinner hour, Sambo looked out and saw the three biggest girls from the house on the shore setting out on a walk with some of their friends. A Sunday afternoon walk was a proper thing for young girls to do, and they were still dressed in their best dresses and were daintily holding frilly parasols over their heads to keep off the sun. Sambo watched them disappear down the lane behind the myrtle bushes. Perhaps the baby and her mother will come over to see me, he thought. He liked the children’s mother very much. She was a lovely, gentle lady and understood horses.
Sambo had seen another butterfly in his yard, and was frisking around, but when he heard the mother and the baby coming through the myrtle bushes he stopped his frisking and came sedately up to the fence. He didn’t want the mother to tell him that he was not deporting himself properly on Sunday. So when the mother held up the baby to feed him grass, Sambo held his head up most gracefully, and nibbled the grass very slowly and fastidiously, because he knew how horses should behave on Sunday.
One hot morning in July, Sambo came out of his stable unusually early. It was hot inside, and the outdoors was not much better. Not a breath of air was stirring the leaves on the myrtle bushes, and the flag hung limp on the station flagpole. Sambo looked out at the creek, and its surface was unrippled. The sun had just come up, and its rays were already beginning to shimmer on the still water like reflections from a looking glass.
From off in the distance, Sambo could hear the women calling their chickens, but it seemed to him that they were not calling with their usual vigor. Their “diddle, diddle, diddle” sounded flat and dispirited.
Sambo was glad when Mr. Sime brought him a large bucket of fresh water, as his old bucket of water now tasted rather warm.
Beads of perspiration stood out on Mr. Sime’s face as he carried in the heavy water bucket.
“It’s really going to be calm today, Sambo,” he said. It was then that he discovered the rotten board in Sambo’s fence.
“Look at that board, Sambo. It’s rotten clear through. Don’t lean up against it as it would surely break, and might hurt you. They certainly don’t make lumber like they used to. I’m going on liberty today, so I’ll try to get a new piece of lumber and fix it up for you.”
Shortly afterwards, Mr. Sime left, and Sambo watched his retreating figure down the path until it disappeared behind the myrtle bushes.
Two bedraggled looking drummers, carrying heavy display cases in one hand, and their coats over their arms, passed by on their way to the mailboat dock. They looked hot, their shirts were damp and sticking to their skin, and their straw hats seemed not too effective against the rays of the sun. Sambo half-hopefully put his head over the fence, near his grass patch, but neither drummer picked him any grass. They did stop and mop their faces with their handkerchiefs, but didn’t even look in Sambo’s direction. They just caught their breath and plodded on, lugging their heavy cases.
The long morning wore on. No one else seemed to be stirring.
“Oh well,” thought Sambo “the girls will come over soon and visit with me.” And he was pleased a little later to hear the girls coming across the croquet ground, but just then he heard their aunt’s voice calling them back to the house. “Girls,” she called, “if you are going up Trent with me after dinner, you will have to come here and help me with this.”
Voices carried distinctly in the still air, and Sambo could hear the mother’s voice, evidently from the porch. “It’s so hot and still today, why don’t you walk up Trent another day,” she asked.
“No,” replied the aunt adamantly, “I planned to go today, and I want to go today. Besides, I am leaving next week, and something might happen if I postpone going.”
“Well,” said the mother, “it is hot for the girls to walk way up there.”
“I hope she won’t let them go,” thought Sambo listening to the conversation.
“We want to go, too, mamma,” said the girls in unison.
“It’s so hot, girls. Why don’t you all stay home and play paper dolls or something quiet, then go in bathing later out in the sound?”
“Oh, mamma, we want to walk up Trent. We don’t want to play paper dolls.”
“Well,” said the mother slowly, “I suppose you can go. But don’t walk too fast and be sure to wear your sun hats and wear your tennis shoes. Baby can stay home with me.”
“Mamma,” cried baby, “I want to go, too; I can walk good. I don’t want to play paper dolls!”
“I hope she will put her foot down and make baby stay home at least,” said Sambo to himself. And he pricked up his ears to hear the rest of the conversation, but he heard the front door close, and could hear no more as they had evidently gone into the house.
Sambo wandered restlessly around his yard. It was so hot and muggy, and a horsefly kept trying to light on his side. He switched his long tail vigorously and knocked him off, but the fly kept buzzing back again, and Sambo kept switching his tail.
Around 2:00 o’clock he heard stirrings and talking over at the house on the shore. He looked down the lane, and saw the little caravan beginning on their walk up Trent.
There was the Aunt, walking in front with her skirts just clearing her slipper tops. She was holding aloft a large black parasol to protect herself from the sun. Then came the little tomboy girl scuffing and kicking up a lot of unnecessary sand, as she dashed up first to the aunt, and back to the two older girls who were bringing up the rear. They each had one of the baby’s hands, and were helping her trudge along. All of the girls had their sailor hats on their heads.
Sambo looked on with disbelief as he watched the little band slowly disappear down the lane.
“That is the last straw,” he thought, “they have even taken baby with them.” Sambo had reconciled himself to the older girls going, but he had thought surely that the mother would make baby stay home, and he had envisioned a pleasant afternoon visit from baby and her mother. The baby would play around his fence and pick a little bunch of sea pinks which she would give to the mother, and the mother would lean on his fence and pat him on the head, and talk to him, and perhaps she would even bring him a lump or two of sugar, which he knew she kept in her big silver sugar bowl.
“But, no,” he said, and stamped his foot, “they had to drag baby with them, even though it is too hot for her to go. I heard the older girls tell the mother, as they were leaving, that they would make a basket with their arms and carry baby if she got tired, but the mother shouldn’t have allowed her to go.”
So Sambo pouted. “Mr. Sime has gone off, and all the girls have gone off, and no one has even passed by the fence. No one thinks anything about me. They just neglect me.” Sambo didn’t want to remember that Mr. Sime had gone to get lumber to fix his fence, so he wouldn’t hurt himself on the rotten place in the plank……………….