DADE CITY — From boyhood on, Elmer Mullins felt most comfortable, and comforted, in the woods.
He internalized its lessons during the Depression in rural Pasco County, back when money was scarce but game plentiful. He had memorized the ground, the animal tracks on its surface and the arrowheads beneath it.
He could pick off a squirrel with a .22 rifle, in the head so as not to spoil dinner. At times he had only a couple of bullets to his name. He learned to make them count.
As a registered land surveyor, Mr. Mullins set up an old David White transit over points he had established in the ground or on roadways. He used a plumb bob, not the optical or laser plummets available in recent decades. The work created an unusual circle of friends, including the late chief Cory Osceola, a descendant of the famous Seminole chief Osceola; and a young lawyer named Lawton Chiles, a future governor, whose firm hired Mr. Mullins as an expert witness in boundary disputes.
He tried to move like the Indians whose artifacts he discovered, leaving nothing behind. He read National Geographic and Scientific American and hoped there was a god.
"He absolutely loved and got Florida, he thought she was precious," said Sue Mullins, his daughter. "He remembered the Everglades when the number of ibises would almost block out the sun."
Mr. Mullins died Monday at his daughter's home in rural Wakulla County. He was 88.
He was born in Williamsburg, Ky., with ancestors on both sides having fought in the Civil and Revolutionary wars, several of them as snipers.
But he was thrust into survival mode early. Both parents abandoned him, his mother for a life of her own in another city and his father to parts unknown. By age 8 he was living in Dade City with his grandparents and a cousin.
"We went hunting because we needed the food," said cousin Phillip Mullins, 71. "We went in places we weren't supposed to be. I guess you would call it poaching."
Mr. Mullins taught his younger cousin a law of hunting: "Get close enough so you don't leave the animal wounded," Phillip Mullins said. "After you get that close, try to get a little bit closer."
Phillip Mullins said that training from his cousin later helped him survive Vietnam.
Mr. Mullins served in the Merchant Marines. A brief first marriage ended in divorce. According to family lore, a group of in-laws met Mr. Mullins in an orange grove. A tense exchange took place. The men gave orders about the divorce, what he would do and who would get what. If he disobeyed, the men said, their buddies in the Klan would pay him a visit. At that, Mr. Mullins broke off four oranges, two in each hand. He tossed them high in the air, quick-drew his .44 Magnum and shot all four oranges into pulp-splintering pieces, his cousin said.
"He said, 'You go ahead and send them boys with the two holes in their hoods. And I'll put a third one between the other two.'
"He never heard from that crew again."
A second marriage, to Mary Frances Hughes, lasted nearly 25 years. Mr. Mullins opened his own surveying business with a partner. In the late 1950s, he helped a local author locate a historic trail between Tampa and Ocala using surveying maps drawn in the 1840s.
"I've been researching that road and that battle for 54 years," said Frank Laumer, 85, who wrote Massacre: An Account of the Massacre of Major Francis L. Dade and His Men by the Seminole Indians in Florida. "Elmer is the one who guided me into the area in the first place."
After retirement he added to his Civil War gun collection and went shooting at the Dade City Rod and Gun Club.
The last four months of his life, he stayed on his daughter's property in Wakulla County, where he could identify bird calls from the porch. Until his final week, he managed to walk every day in the woods that had always given him so much solace.