LIFE ON THE LONELY ISLAND.
THE influence of a brisk wood fire on a dark night is
remarkable. Not only does it give freely of its heat and light, but
gloom and despair are banished by its ruddy glow, while cheerfulness
and hope spring forward as if by magic to occupy their vacant places.
At least, this was the effect of the cheery blaze our canoemates had at
length succeeded in coaxing into life, and though it had cost them two
of their half-dozen cartridges, they felt that these had been well
expended. Their prospects had looked dismal enough when they had been
compelled to contemplate an existence without a fire; but with it to
aid them, they felt equal to almost any emergency, and they turned to
the preparing of their ducks for supper with renewed energy. Surely
fire is well worthy of being classed with air and water as one of the
things most necessary to human life and happiness.
Now that they had time to think of it, the boys were very
hungry, for since an early breakfast they had eaten but a light lunch
of crackers and jam. So they barely waited to assure themselves that
their fire was going to burn, before the feathers from their ducks were
flying in all directions. When the birds were plucked and cleaned, two
sharpened sticks were thrust through their bodies. These were rested on
one rock, with another above them to hold them in place, so that the
ducks were lifted but a few inches above a great bed of glowing coals.
Then the hungry lads sat down to watch them, and never, to their
impatient belief, had two fowls taken so long to roast before. They
began testing their condition by sticking the points of their knives
into them long before there was a chance of their being done. At length
Sumner declared that he was going to eat his even if it were still raw,
and the half-cooked ducks were placed on two broad palm leaves that
served at once as tables and plates.
"My! hut isn't this fowl tough!" exclaimed Worth, as he
struggled with his share of the feast. "Sole leather and rubber are
nothing to it."
"Yes," replied Sumner; "ten-ounce army duck would be
easier eating than this fellow. I wish we could have stewed them with
rice, a few bits of pork, a slice or two of onion, and a seasoning of
pepper and salt. How do you think that would go?"
"Please don't mention such things," said Worth, working at
a drumstick with teeth and both hands.
"Ducks ought always to be parboiled before roasting,"
remarked Sumner, wisely.
"I believe this fellow would be like eggs," replied Worth;
"the more you boiled him the harder he would get."
However, hunger and young teeth can accomplish wonders, so
it was not very long before two little heaps of cleanly-picked bones
marked all that was left of the ducks, and though they could easily
have eaten more, the boys wisely decided to reserve the doves for
Although the darkness rendered it a difficult task, Sumner
managed to cut a few armfuls more of palmetto leaves. These, shredded
from their heavy stalks and spread thickly over the floor of the
lean-to, made a couch decidedly more comfortable than a bed on the bare
ground would have been.
They could do nothing more that night, and lying there in
the firelight they had the first opportunity since discovering the loss
of their canoes to thoroughly discuss the situation.
"What would our mothers say if they could see us now, and
know the fix we are in?" queried Worth, after a meditative silence.
"I'm awfully glad they can't know anything about it,"
"But I wish some one could know, so that they could send a
boat for us. I am sure that we don't want to stay on this island for
the rest of our lives."
"Of course not, and I don't propose to, even if no boat
"What do you propose to do?" inquired Worth, leaning on
his elbow, and gazing at his companion with eager interest.
"Well, in the first place, I propose to explore this key
thoroughly tomorrow, and see if any traces of the canoes are to be
found, as well as what it will afford in the way of food and lumber.
Then, if we don't find the canoes, and no boat comes along, I propose
to build some kind of a raft, on which we can float over to Indian Key.
While boats rarely pass this way, some are certain to pass within a
short distance of it almost every day. So from there we would have
little difficulty in getting taken off."
"Well," said Worth, regarding his companion admiringly,
"I'm sure I couldn't build a raft with only a hatchet, and I'm awfully
glad that I'm not here all alone. What can possibly have become of our
"I'm sure I can't imagine," replied Sumner, "unless some
one stole them, and I don't know of any one on the reef mean enough to
do that. Besides, we haven't seen a sail all day, nor a sign of a human
being. They couldn't have gone adrift, either -- at least, I don't see
how they could. So, on the whole, it's a conundrum that I give up.
You'd better believe that I feel badly enough, though, over losing Psyche.
me a great deal more than how we are going to get away
from here, for I never expect to own another such beauty as she is. But
there's no use crying over what can't be helped, so let's go to sleep,
and prepare for a fresh start tomorrow. Whenever you wake during the
night you want to get up and throw a fresh stick on the fire, and I
will do the same, for we can't afford to let it go out."
"All right," said Worth. "But, Sumner, there aren't any
wild beasts or snakes on this key, are there?"
"I don't believe there are any snakes," was the reply,
"while there certainly aren't any animals larger than 'coons, and they
won't hurt any one. No, indeed, there is nothing to be afraid of here,
and you may be as free from anxiety on that score as though you were in
your own room in New York City. More so," he added, with a laugh; "for
there you might have burglars, while here there is no chance of them. I
only wish there was; for burglars in this part of the country would
have to come in boats, and we might persuade them to take us off the
key. Now go to sleep, old man, and pleasant dreams to you."
"Good night," answered Worth, and closing his eyes, the
boy made a resolute effort to sleep. Somehow he found it harder to do
so now than it had been on his first night of camping out The loss of
the canoes seemed to have removed an element of safety on which he had
depended, and to have suddenly placed him at an infinite distance
beyond civilization, with all its protections. It was so awful to be
imprisoned on this lonely isle, in those faraway southern seas. He
wondered what his father and mother and Uncle Tracy were doing, and if
there was a dance at the Ponce de Leon that night, and what his school
fellows in New York would say if they knew of his situation. He
wondered and thought of these and a thousand other things, until
finally he, too, fell asleep, and the silence of the lonely little camp
was unbroken save by the voice of the great hoot owl, who called at
regular intervals, "Whoo, whoo, whoo-ah!"
It still wanted an hour or so of moonrise, when the waning
firelight half disclosed a human figure that emerged from the woods
behind the lean-to, and stealthily crouched in the black shadow beside
it. For some moments it remained motionless, listening to the regular
breathing of the boys. Then it moved noiselessly forward on hands and
Suddenly Worth awoke, and sprang into a sitting posture.
At the same time he uttered a startled cry, at the sound of which the
creeping figure drew quickly back, and disappeared behind the trunk of
"What is it?" asked Sumner, who, awakened by Worth's cry,
was also sitting up.
"I don't know," answered the boy, "but I am almost certain
that some one was trying to pull my gun away."
THE NOCTURNAL VISITOR
FOR at full minute the boys sat motionless, listening
intently for any sound that should betray the presence of the intruder
who, Worth was positive, had visited their camp. Once they both heard a
slight rustling in the bushes behind them; and Worth, putting his hand
on Sumner's arm, whispered, breathlessly,
"There !--hear that?"
"That's nothing," answered Sumner. "Probably that 'coon
has come back to look for the rest of his supper."
"But a 'coon wouldn't pull at a gun," insisted Worth.
"Oh, you must have been dreaming," returned Sumner. "Your
gun hasn't disappeared, has it?"
"No, but I am sure I felt it move. I threw my arm across
it before I went to sleep, and its moving woke me. I felt it move once
after I was awake, as though some one were trying to pull it away very
gently. Then I sat up and called out, 'Who's there?' but there wasn't
any answer, and I didn't hear a sound. But, Sumner, there's some one on
this island besides ourselves, I know there is, and he'll kill us if he
gets the chance. Can't we get away somehow -- can't we? I shall die of
fright if we have to stay here any longer!"
'SOME ONE WAS TRYING TO PULL MY GUN AWAY.'
"Yes, of course we can," answered Sumner, soothingly, "and
we'll set about it as soon as daylight comes. Until then we'll keep a
sharp lookout, though I can't believe there is a human being on the key
besides ourselves. We surely would have seen some traces of him."
As the boy finished speaking he went outside and threw
some more wood on the fire. In another minute a bright blaze had driven
back the shadows from a wide circle about the little hut, and rendered
it impossible for any one to approach without discovery. Then the
canoemates sat with their precious guns in their hands, and talked in
low tones until the moon rose above the trees behind them, flooding the
whole scene with a light almost as bright as that of day.
By this time Worth's conversation began to grow
unintelligible; his head sank lower and lower, until at length he
slipped down from his sitting position fast asleep. Then Sumner thought
he might as well lie down, and in another minute he, too, was in the
land of dreams. Worth was very restless, and occasionally talked in his
sleep, which is probably the reason why the dark form still crouching
in the shadows behind the camp did not again venture to approach it.
It was broad daylight, and the sun was an hour high, when
the boys next awoke, wondering whether their fright of the night before
had been a reality or only a dream. Under the fear dispelling influence
of the sunlight even Worth was inclined to think it might have been the
latter, while Sumner was sure of it.
After replenishing their fire, they went down to the beach
in the hope of seeing a sail, and for their morning plunge in the clear
water. There was nothing in sight; but while they were bathing, Sumner
discovered a fine bunch of oysters. These, roasted in their shells,
together with the birds saved from the evening before, made quite a
satisfactory breakfast. After eating it, and carefully banking their
fire with earth, they set forth to explore the island.
As they were most anxious to search for traces of the lost
canoes, and had already penetrated the interior as far as the central
pond of freshwater, they decided to follow the coastline as closely as
possible. Accordingly, with their loaded guns over their shoulders,
they set out along the water's edge. Their progress was slow, for in
many places the mangroves were so thick that they found great
difficulty in forcing a way through them. Then, too, they found a
quantity of planks, many of which they hauled up, as well as they
could, beyond the reach of the tide for future use. While thus engaged,
the meridian sun and their appetites indicated the hour of noon before
they reached a small grove of coconut trees on the north end of the
island, beneath which they decided to rest.
Sumner climbed one of the tall, smooth trunks, and cutting
off a great bunch of nuts, in all stages of ripeness, let it fall to
the ground with a crash. As he was about to descend, his eye was
arrested by something that instantly occupied his earnest attention. It
was only the stem of another bunch of nuts; but it had been cut, and
that so recently that drops of fresh sap were still oozing from it.
From his elevated perch he could also see where other bunches had been
cut from trees near by, and he slid to the ground in a very reflective
frame of mind. He could not bear, however, to arouse Worth's fears by
communicating his suspicions until he had reduced them to a certainty.
The nuts might have been taken by some passing sponger, though he did
not believe they had been.
So he said nothing of his discovery while they lunched off
of coconuts, ripe and partially so, and took refreshing draughts of
their milk. He did, however, keep a sharp lookout, and finally spied
what resembled a dim trail leading through the bushes behind them
towards the interior.
Finally, on the pretext that he might get a shot at some
doves, and asking Worth to remain where he was for a few minutes,
Sumner entered the bushes, determined to discover the mystery, if that
trail would lead him to it. lie had not gone more than a hundred yards
when his foot was caught by a low vine, and he plunged head first into
a thick ty-ti bush. He fell with a great crash, and made such a noise
in extricating him self from the thorny embrace that he did not hear a
quick rush and a rustling of the undergrowth but a short distance from
him. What he did hear, though, a minute after he regained his footing,
was a startled cry, and the roar of Worth's gun. Then came a succession
of yells, mingled with cries of murder, and such shouts for help,
coupled with his own name, that for a moment he was paralyzed with
bewilderment and a sickening fear. Then he bounded back down the dim
trail, just in time to see Worth throw down his gun and rush towards
the struggling figure of a Negro. The latter was rolling on the ground
at the foot of a coconut tree, and uttering the most piercing yells.
THE LATTER WAS ROLLING ON THE GROUND
AT THE FOOT OF A COCOANUT TREE.
As Worth became aware of Sumner's presence, he turned with
a white, frightened face, exclaiming: "Oh, Sumner, what shall I do?
I've killed him, and he is dying before my very eyes! Of course I
didn't mean to, but he came on me so suddenly that I fired before I had
time to think. The whole charge must have gone right through his body,
judging from the agony he is in. What shall I do? Oh, what shall I do?"
"Well, he isn't dead yet, at all events," said Sumner.
"Perhaps, if he will keep still for a minute and stop his yelling, we
can find out where he is hurt and do something for him."
With this he attempted to catch hold of the struggling
figure at his feet; but the Negro rolled away from him, crying:
"Don't tech me, Marse Summer! Don't yo' tech me! I's shot
full o' holes, an' I's gwine ter die. Oh Lordy! Oh Lordy! Sich pain as
I's a-suff'rin'! An' I didn't kill nobody, nuther. I didn't nebber do
no harm. An' now I's full ob holes. Oh Lordy! Oh Lordy!"
"Why, it's Quorum!" exclaimed Sumner, mentioning the name
of one of the best cooks known to the Key West sponging fleet. Sumner
had sailed with him, and knew him well. About a month before, the
captain of the schooner on which he was employed had been found dead in
his bunk. Quorum was accused of poisoning him for the sake of a sum of
money that the captain was known to have had, but which could not now
be found. The cook had been arrested, and an attempt was made to lynch
him for the alleged crime. He had, however, succeeded in escaping, and
had disappeared from the island. That no active search was made for him
was because the money was found concealed in the captain's bunk, and it
was proved that heart disease was the cause of his death.
At length the Negro, exhausted by his struggles, lay
still, though groaning so heavily that Worth imagined him to be dying,
and Sumner, bending over him, searched for the fatal wound. His face
became more and more perplexed as the examination proceeded, until
finally, in a vastly relieved tone, he exclaimed:
"You good-for-nothing old rascal! What do you mean by
frightening us so? There isn't a scratch anywhere about you. Come, get
up and explain yourself."
"Don't yz' trifle wif a ole man what's dyin', Marse
Summer," said Quorum, interrupting his groans and sitting up.
"You are no more dying than I am," laughed Sumner, who was
only too glad to be able to laugh after his recent anxiety. "I don't
know what Worth, here, fired at, or what he hit; but it was certainly
"Didn't I, really?" cried Worth. "Oh, I'm so glad! I don't
know what possessed me to fire, anyhow; but when he came dashing out of
the woods right towards me, my gun seemed to go off of its own accord."
"Yz' say I hain't hit nowheres, Marse Summer?" asked the
Negro, doubtfully; "an' not eben hurted?"
"No," laughed Sumner, "not even 'hurted.' You know,
Quorum, that I wouldn't hurt you for anything. I like your corn
fritters and conch soup too much for that."
"Why for yo' a-huntin' de ole man, den?"
"Hunting you? We're not hunting you. What put such an idea
into your head?"
"Kase ebberbody er huntin' him, an' er tryin' ter kill him
for de murder what he nebber done."
"Of course you didn't do it. Captain Rube died of heart
disease. Everybody knows that now."
"What yo' say?" cried the Negro, springing to his feet,
his face radiant with joy. "lie die ob he own sef, an' ebberybody know
hit, an' dey hain't er huntin' ole Quorm any mo'? Glory be to de Lawd!
Glory be to de Lawd! an' bress yo' honey face, Marse Summer, for de
good news! De pore ole niggah been scare' 'most' to def ebber sence he
skip up de reef in a ole, leaky skiff, what done got wrack on dis yer
key. Now he free man, he hole he head up an' go cookin' agin. Bress de
Lawd! Bress de Lawd!"
© 2001 Craig O'Donnell, editor & general factotum.
May not be reproduced without my permission.
Go scan your own damn