A Story of the Everglades.



THE great Florida Reef, up which our young canoemates had just started on their adventurous cruise, is about 230 miles long. It extends from Cape Florida, on the Atlantic coast, completely around the southern end of the peninsula, and far out into the Gulf of Mexico on the west. The island of Key West lies some 70 miles off the mainland, and about the same distance from the Dry Tortugas, which group of little coral islets forms the western extremity of the reef. Between Key West, on which is a city of the same name containing nearly 20,000 inhabitants, who live farther south than any one else in the United States, and Cape Florida, 150 miles east and north, a multitude of little keys or islands, covered to the water's edge with a dense growth of mangroves and other tropical trees and shrubs, stretch in a continuous line. Between these keys* and the mainland lies a vast shallow expanse of water known as the Bay of Florida. Outside of them is the narrow and navigable Hawk Channel, running along their entire length, and bounded on its seaward side by the almost unbroken wall of the outer reef. This rarely rises above the surface, and on it the busy coral insects pursue their ceaseless toil of rock-building. Beyond the reef, between it and the island of Cuba, eighty miles away, pours the mighty flood of the Gulf Stream.

* The word "key" is a corruption of the Spanish Cayo or island. Thus Key West was originally "Cayo Hueso," or Bone Island, so called from the quantity of human bones found on it by the first white settlers.

For nearly 300 years these peaceful looking keys, with their bewildering network of channels, kept open by the rushing tide currents, and coral reefs were the chosen resorts of pirates and wreckers, both of whom reaped rich rewards from the unfortunate vessels that fell into their hands. Now the pirates have disappeared, and the business of the wreckers has been largely taken from them by the establishment of a range of lighthouses along the outer reef, at intervals of twenty to thirty miles. The first of these is on Loggerhead Key, the outermost of the Tortugas. Then comes Rebecca Shoal, halfway between Loggerhead and Sand Key Light, which is just off Key West. From here the lights in order up the reef are American Shoal, Sombrero, Alligator, Carysfort, and Fowey Rocks, off Cape Florida.

With this chain of flashing beacons to warn mariners of the presence of the dreaded reef, the palmy days of wreckers and beachcombers have passed away, and they must content themselves with what they can make out of the occasional vessels that are still drawn in to the reef by the powerful currents ever setting towards' it. Consequently most of those who would otherwise be wreckers have turned their attention to sponging in the waters behind the keys, which form one of the great spongefields of the world, or to the raising of pineapples and coconuts on such of the islands as afford sufficient soil for this purpose.

There are four ways by which one may sail up the reef. The first is outside in the Gulf Stream, or by "way of the Gulf"; the second is between the reef and the keys, through the Hawk Channel; the third is through the narrow and intricate channels among the keys, or "inside," as the spongers say; and the fourth is the "bay way," or through the shoal waters behind the keys.

Of all these, the third, or inside way, was the one chosen by Sumner as being the most protected from wind and seas, the most picturesque, the one affording the most frequent opportunities for landing, the most interesting, and in every way best adapted to canoes drawing but a few inches of water.

As the Psyche and Cupid are running easily along the north shore of the key before a light southerly breeze, there is time to take a look at the "duffle" with which they are laden. In the first place, each has two lateen sails, the long yards of which are hoisted on short masts rising but a few feet from the deck. These sails can be hoisted, lowered, or quickly reefed by the canoeman from where he sits. The two halves of the double-bladed paddles are held in metal clips on deck, on either side of the cockpit. Also on deck, securely fastened, is a small folding anchor, the light but strong five-fathom cable of which runs through a ring at the bow, and back to a cleat just inside the forward end of the coaming.

On the floor of each canoe is folded a small tent made of gay-striped awning cloth, and provided with mosquito nettings at the openings. Above these are laid the pair of heavy Mackinaw blankets and the rubber poncho that each carries. These, which will be shelter and bedding at night, answer for seats while sailing.

Under the deck, at one side of each cockpit, hangs a double barreled shotgun; and on the other Bide are half a dozen tiny lockers, in which are stowed a few simple medicines, fishing tackle, matches, an alcohol lamp (flamme forcé), loaded shells for the guns, etc. In the after stowage lockers are extra clothing and toilet articles. The Psyche carries the mess chest, containing a limited supply of tableware, sugar, coffee, tea, baking powder, salt, pepper, etc., and a light axe, both of which are stowed at the forward end of the cockpit. The Cupid carries in the same place a two-gallon water keg and a small, but well-furnished tool chest. The provisions, of which bacon, flour, oatmeal, sea biscuit, a few cans of baked beans and brown bread, dried apples, syrup, cocoa, condensed milk, corn meal, rice, and hominy form the staples, and the few necessary cooking utensils, which are made to fit within one another, are evenly divided between the two canoes and stowed under the forward hatches. By Sumner's advice, many things that the Mantons brought with them have been left behind, and everything taken along has been reduced to its smallest possible compass. Besides the shotgun that Mr. Manton had given him as part of the Psyche's outfit, Sumner was armed with a revolver that had been his father's.

Late in the afternoon they passed the eastern point of the island of Key West, and crossing a broad open space, in the shoal waters of which, but for Sumner's intimate knowledge of the place, even their light canoes would have run aground a dozen times, they approached the coconut groves of Boca Chica, a large key on which they proposed to make their first camp.

The western sky was in a glory of flame as they hauled their craft ashore, and from the tinted waters myriads of fish were leaping in all directions, as though intoxicated by the splendor of the scene.

"We will catch some of those fine fellows a little later," said Sumner, as they began to unload their canoes and carry the things to the spot they had already chosen for a camp.

"But it will be dark," protested Worth.

"So much the better. It's ever so much easier to catch fish in the dark than by daylight."

There was plenty of driftwood on the beach, and in a few minutes the merry blaze of their campfire was leaping from a pile of it. While waiting for it to burn down to a bed of coals, each of them drove a couple of stout stakes, and pitched their canoe tents near a clump of tall palms, just back of the fire, looped up the side openings, and spread their blankets beneath them.

"Now let's fly round and get supper," cried Sumner, "for I am as hungry as a kingfish.

You put the coffee water on to boil, while I cut some slices of bacon, Worth, and then I'll scramble some eggs, too, for we might as well eat them while they are fresh."

With his back turned to the fire, the former did not notice what Worth was doing, until a hissing sound, accompanied by a cry of dismay, caused him to look round.

"I never saw such a miserable kettle as that!" exclaimed Worth. "lust look; it has fallen all to pieces."

For a moment Sumner could not imagine what had caused such a catastrophe. Then he exclaimed: "I do believe you must have set the kettle on the coals before you put the water into it."

"Of course I did," answered Worth, "so as to let it get hot. And the minute I began to pour water into it, it went all to pieces."

"Experience comes high," said Sumner, "especially when it costs us the loss of our best kettle; but we've got to have it at any price, and I don't believe you'll ever set a kettle on the fire again without first putting water or some other liquid inside of it."

"No, I don't believe I will," answered Worth, ruefully, "if that is what happens."

In spite of this mishap, the supper was successfully cooked, thanks to Sumner's culinary knowledge, and by the time it was over and the dishes had been washed, he pronounced it dark enough to go fishing. First he cut a quantity of slivers from a piece of pitch pine drift wood, then, having emptied one of the canoes of its contents, he invited Worth to enter it with him.

"But we haven't a single fish line ready," protested Worth.

"Oh yes, we have," laughed Sumner, lighting one end of the bundle of pine slivers, and giving it to Worth to hold. "You just sit still and hold that. You'll find out what sort of a fish line it is in a minute. Then he paddled the canoe very gently a few rods off shore, at the same time bearing down on one gunwale until it was even with the surface of the water. "Look out, here they come!" he shouted.





THE next instant Worth uttered a startled cry and very nearly dropped his torch, as a mullet, leaping from the water, struck him on the side of the head, and fell flapping into the canoe.

"Never mind a little thing like that," cried Sumner. "Hold your torch a trifle lower. That's the kind!" Now the mullet came thick and fast, attracted to the bright light like moths to a candle flame. They leaped into the canoe and over it, they fell on its decks and flopped off into the water, they struck the two boys until they felt as though they were being pelted with wet snowballs; and at length one of them, hitting the torch, knocked it from Worth's hand, so that it fell hissing into the water.

The effect of this sudden extinguishing of the light was startling. In an instant the fish ceased to jump, and disappeared, while the recent noisy confusion was succeeded by an intense stillness, Only broken by an occasional flap from one of the victims to curiosity that had fallen into the canoe.

"Well, that is the easiest way of fishing I ever heard of," remarked Worth, as they stepped ashore, and turning the canoe over, spilled out fifty or more fine mullet. A dozen of them were cleaned, rubbed with salt, and put away for breakfast. Then the tired canoemates turned in for their first night's sleep in camp.

Sumner's eyes were quickly closed, but Worth found his surroundings so novel that for a long time he lay dreamily awake watching the play of moonlight on the rippling water, listening to the splash of jumping fish, the music of little waves on the shell-strewn beach, and the ceaseless rustle of the great palm leaves above him. At length his wakefulness merged into dreams, and when he next opened his eyes it was broad daylight, the sun had just risen, and Sumner was building a fire.

"Hurrah, Worth! Tumble out of bed and tumble into the water," he called at that moment. "There's just time for a dip in the briny before this fire '11 be ready for those fish." Suiting his actions to his words, he began pulling off his clothes, and a minute later the two boys were diving into the cool water like a couple of frisky young porpoises.

Oatmeal and syrup, fresh mullet, bread-and-butter (which they had brought from home), and coffee, formed a breakfast that Sumner declared fit for a railroad king.

The sun was not more than an hour high before they were again under way, this time working hard at their paddles, as the breeze had not yet sprung up. Having left their first camp behind them, they felt that their long cruise had indeed begun in earnest.

For the next three days they threaded their way, under sail or paddle, among such numberless keys and through such a maze of narrow channels, that it seemed to Worth as though they were entangled in a labyrinth from which they would never be able to extricate themselves. Whenever a long sand spit or reef shot out from the north side of one key, a similar obstruction was certain to be found on the south end of the next one. Thus their course was a perpetual zigzag, and a fair wind on one stretch would be dead ahead on the next. Now they slid through channels so narrow that the dense mangroves on either side brushed their decks, and then they would be confronted by a coral reef that seemed to extend unbrokenly in both directions as far as the eye could reach. Worth would make up his mind that there was nothing to do hut get out and drag the canoes over it, when suddenly the Psyche, which was always in the lead, would dash directly at the obstacle, and skim through one of the narrow cuts with which all these reefs abound.

For a long time it was a mystery to Worth how Sumner always kept in the channel without hesitating or stopping to take soundings. Finally he discovered that it was by carefully noting the color of the water. He learned that white water meant shoals, that of a reddish tinge indicated sandbars or reefs, black water showed rocks or grassy patches, and that the channels assumed varying shades of green, according to their depth.

They camped with Negro charcoal burners on one key, and visited an extensive pineapple patch on another. Having heard this fruit spoken of as growing on trees, Worth was amazed to find it borne on plants with long prickly leaves that reached but little above his knees. The plants stood so close together, and their leaves were so interlaced, that he did not see how any one ever walked among them to cut the single fruit borne at the head of each one; and when he tried it' stepping high to avoid the bayonet-like leaves, his wonder that any human being could traverse the patch was redoubled.

"I would just as soon try to walk through a field covered with cactus plants," he said.

"So would I," laughed Sumner, "if I had to walk as you do. In a pineapple patch you must never lift your feet, but always shuffle along. In that way you force the prickly leaves before you, and move with their grain instead of against it."

Although the crop would not be ready for cutting much before May, they found here and there a lusciously ripe yellow "pine," and after eating one of these, Worth declared that he had never before known what a pineapple was. He did not wonder that they tasted so different here and in New York, when he learned that for shipment north they must be cut at least two weeks before they are ripe, while they are hard and comparatively juiceless.

At the end of three days an outgoing tide, rushing like a millrace, swept the canoes through the green expanse of "The Grasses," that looked like a vast submerged meadow, and into the open waters of the Bahia Honda, or, as the reefmen say, the "Bay o' Hundy." Here they first saw spongers at work, and devoted an entire day to studying their operations.

Worth had always supposed that sponges were dived for, but now he learned his mistake. He found that in those waters they are torn from the bottom and drawn to the surface by iron rakes with long curved teeth attached to slender handles from twenty to thirty feet in length. The sponging craft are small sloops or schooners, each of which tows from two to six boats behind it. When a sponge bed is discovered, two men go out in each of these boats. One of them sculls it gently along, while the other leans over the gunwale with a water glass in his hands, and carefully examines the bottom as he is moved slowly over it. The water glass is a common wooden bucket having a glass bottom. This is held over the side of the boat so that its bottom is a few inches below the surface of the water, or beyond the disturbing influence of ripples. With his head in this bucket, the sponger gazes intently down until he sees the round black object that he wants. Then he calls out to the sculler to stop the boat, and with the long-handled rake that lies by his side secures the prize. It is black and slimy, and full of animal matter that quickly dies, and decomposes with a most disgusting odor. To this the spongers become so accustomed that they do not mind it in the least, and fail to understand why all strangers take such pains to sail to windward of their boats.

When the deck of a sponge boat is piled high with this unsavory spoil of the sea, she is headed towards the nearest key on which her crew have established a crawl,* and her cargo is tossed into it. The crawl is a square pen of stakes built in the shallow water of some sheltered bay, and in it the sponges lie until their animal matter is so decomposed that it will readily separate from them. Then they are stirred with poles or trodden by the feet of the spongers until they are free from it, when they are taken from the crawl, and spread on a beach to dry and whiten in the sun. When a full cargo has been obtained, they are strung in bunches, and taken to Key West to be sold by the pound at auction. There they are trimmed, bleached again, pressed into bales, and finally shipped to New York.

Sponges are of many grades, of which the sheep's wool is the finest, and the great loggerheads the most worthless. As spongers can only work in water that is smooth, or nearly so, half their time is spent in idleness; and though they receive large prices for what they catch, the average of their wages is low.

One hot afternoon at the end of a week found our canoemates halfway up the reef, and approaching a key called Lignum Vitae which is for several reasons one of the most remarkable of all the keys. It is a large island lifted higher above the surface of the water than any of the other keys, and it contains in its center a small freshwater lake. It is covered with all almost impenetrable forest growth, and concealed by this are ancient stone walls; of which no one knows the origin or date.

* Crawl is a corruption of corral, meaning a yard or pen.

Sumner had told Worth so much concerning this key as to arouse his curiosity, and they both looked forward with interest to reaching it. All day they had seen it looming before them, and when they finally dropped sail close beside it, Worth proposed that they take advantage of the remaining daylight to make a short exploration before unloading their canoes and pitching camp. To this Sumner agreed, and as they could not drag the laden boats up over the rocky beach, they decided to anchor them out and wade ashore. So the Psyche's anchor was flung out into the channel, the Cupid was made fast to her, and a light line from its stern was carried ashore and tied to a tree. Then, taking their guns with them, the boys plunged into the forest.

When, an hour later, they returned from their exploration, bringing with them a brace of ducks and half a dozen doves that they had shot, they gazed about them in bewildered dismay. The canoes were not where they had left them, nor could any trace of them be discovered.




"THE canoes are gone!" cried Worth.

"It looks like it," replied Sumner, in an equally dismayed tone.

"Are you sure this is where we left them ?" "Yes; sure. There is the stern line that we made fast to the Cupid or what is left of it."

Sure enough, there was a portion of the light line still fast to the tree, and as Sumner pulled it in, both boys bent over to examine it. It had been broken, and not cut. From its length it must also have been broken close to the canoe.

"Oh, Sumner, what shall we do ?" asked Worth, in a tone of such despair that the former at once realized the necessity of some immediate action to divert his comrade's thoughts.

"Do ?" he cried. "There's plenty to do. First, we'll go down to that point and take a look to seaward; for, as the tide is running out, they are more likely to have gone in that direction than any other. It would be a comfort even to catch a glimpse of them. Then, perhaps, they have only drifted away, and are stranded on some bar near by. Besides looking for the canoes, we must build some kind of a shelter for the night, cook supper, and discuss our plans for the future. Oh yes, we've plenty to do!" While he spoke, the boys were making their way to the point in question, and when they reached it, they eagerly scanned every foot of water in sight. Diagonally to the right from where they stood stretched the long reach of Lower Metacumba, desolate and uninhabited as they knew. Almost directly in front, but several miles away, rose the palm-crowned rocks of Indian Key, with its two or three old shedlike buildings in plain view. These had been used and abandoned years before by the builders of Alligator Light, the slender tower of which they could see rising from the distant waters above the outer reef. Diagonally on the left was the tiny green form of Tea Table Key, and dimly beyond it they could make out the coast of Upper Metacumba, which Sumner said was inhabited. In all this far-reaching view, however, there were no signs of the missing canoes.

"I'm glad of it!" said Sumner, after his long searching gaze had failed to reveal them. "It would be rough to have them in sight but out of reach."

Already the sun was sinking behind the treetops of Lower Metacumba, fish were leaping in the placid waters, and a few pelican were soaring with steady poise above them. Every now and then these would swoop swiftly down, with a heavy splash that generally sealed the fate of one or more mullet off which the great birds were making their evening meal. A flock of black cormorants, uttering harsh cries, flew overhead with a rushing sound, returning from a day's fishing to their roosts in the distant Everglades. With these exceptions, and the faint boom of the surf on the outer reef, all was silence and desertion. Besides the lighthouse tower there was no sign of human life, not even the distant glimmer of a sail. While the boys still looked longingly for some trace of their canoes, the sun set, and a red flash, followed at short intervals by two white ones, shot out from the vanishing form of Alligator Light.

"Come!" cried Sumner, heedful of this warning. "Night is almost here, and we have too much to do in every precious minute of twilight to be standing idle. I'll take the bucket and run to the pond for water, while you cut all the palmetto leaves you possibly can, and carry them to the place where we landed."

"The bucket?" repeated Worth, looming about him inquiringly. "Where are you going to find it?" Without answering, Sumner sprang down the rocks to the water's edge, where he had noticed a stranded bamboo, and quickly cut out a short section of it with the hatchet that he had thrust into his belt before leaving the canoes. As he made the cuts just below two of the joints, his section was a hollow cylinder, open at one end, but having a tight bottom and capable of holding several quarts of water. With this he plunged into the forest in the direction of the pond, handing Worth the hatchet as he passed, and bidding him be spry with his palmetto leaves.

A few minutes later, as Sumner emerged from the trees, carrying his full water bucket, and breathless with his haste, he indistinctly saw the form of some animal at the very place where they had left their guns and birds. As the boy dashed forward, uttering a loud cry, the alarmed animal scuttled off into the bushes.

"Oh, you villain!" gasped Sumner as he reached the place," I'll settle with you tomorrow, see if I don't.

Four of the doves had disappeared, and the head was torn from one of the ducks.

"What is it?" cried Worth, in alarm, as he entered the clearing from the opposite side, staggering beneath an immense load of cabbage palm leaves.

"A rascally thieving 'coon," answered Sumner, "and he has got away with the best part of our provisions, too; but I'll get even with him yet. Now give me the hatchet, and then pick up all the driftwood you can find, while I build a house."

Worth would gladly have helped erect the house, as Sumner called it, for he was very curious as to what sort of a structure could be built of leaves, but he realized the necessity of doing as he was bidden, and at once set to work gathering wood. Sumner, after carefully propping his water bucket between two rocks, so as to insure the safety of its contents, began cutting a number of slender saplings, and turning them into poles. The stoutest of these he bound with withes to two trees that stood about six feet apart. He fastened it to their trunks as high as he could reach. Then he bound one end of the longer poles to it, allowing them to slant to the ground behind. Crosswise of these, and about a foot apart, he tied a number of still more slender poles, and over these laid the broad leaves. He would have tied these securely in place if he had had time. As he had not, for it was quite dark before he finished even this rude shelter, he was forced to leave them so, and hope that a wind would not arise during the night. For himself alone he would not have built any shelter, but would have found a comfortable resting place under a tree. Knowing, however, that Worth had never in his life slept without a roof of some kind above him, he thought it best to provide one, and thereby relieve their situation of a portion of the terror with which the city-bred boy was inclined to regard it.

It was curious and interesting to note how a sense of responsibility, and the care of one younger and much more helpless than himself, was developing Sumner's character. Already the selfishness to which he was inclined had very nearly disappeared, while almost every thought was for the comfort and happiness of his companion. Worth, accustomed to being cared for and having every wish gratified, hardly appreciated this as yet; but the emergencies of their situation were teaching him valuable lessons of prompt obedience and self reliance that he could have gained in no other way.

As Sumner finished his rude lean-to, and placed the guns within its shelter for protection from the heavy night dews, Worth Came up from the beach with his last load of driftwood. It was now completely dark, and the notes of chuckwills-widows were mingling with the "whoo, whoo, whoo ah-h!" of a great hoot owl in the forest behind them.

"'Now for a fire and some supper," cried Sumner, cheerily. You've got some matches, haven't you?" "I don't believe I have," replied Worth, anxiously feeling in his pockets. I thought you must have some."

"No, I haven't a sign of one!" exclaimed Sumner, and an accent of hopelessness was for the first time allowed to enter his voice. "They are all aboard the canoes, and without a fire we are in a pretty pickle sure enough. I wonder how hungry we'll get before we make up our minds to eat raw duck This is worse than losing the canoes. I declare I don't know what to do."

"Couldn't we somehow make a fire with a gun? Seems to me I have read of something of that kind," suggested Worth.

"Of course we can!" shouted Sumner, springing to his feet. "What a gump I was not to think of it! If we collect a lot of dry stuff and shoot into it, there is bound to be a spark or two that we can capture and coax into a flame."

So, with infinite pains, they felt around in the dark until they had collected a considerable pile of dry leaves, sticks, and other rubbish that they imagined would easily take fire. Then, throwing a loaded shell into a barrel of his gun, and placing the muzzle close to the collected kindlings, Sumner pulled the trigger. There was a blinding flash, a loud report that rolled far and wide through the heavy night air, and the heap of rubbish was blown into space. Not a leaf remained to show where it had been, and not the faintest spark relieved the darkness that instantly shut in more dense than ever.

"One cartridge spent in buying experience," remarked Sumner, as soon as he discovered the attempt to be a failure. "Now we'll try another. If you will kindly collect another pile of kindling, I'll prepare some fireworks on a different plan."

Thus saying, he spread his handkerchief on the ground, cut off the crimping of another shell with his pocket knife, carefully extracted the shot and half the powder, and confined the remainder in the bottom of the shell with one of the wads. Then he moistened the powder that he had taken out, and rubbed it thoroughly into the handkerchief, which he placed in the second pile of sticks and leaves that Worth had by this time gathered. A shot taken at this with the lightly charged blank cartridge produced the desired effect. Five minutes later the cheerful blaze of a crackling fire illumined the scene, and banished a cloud of anxiety from the minds of the young castaways.


© 2001 Craig O'Donnell, editor & general factotum.
May not be reproduced without my permission. Go scan your own damn stuff.

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