A Story of the Everglades.



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 breakfast.

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," replied Sumner.

"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 comes here."

"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 canoes, anyway?"

"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. That worries 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 knees.

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 a tree.

"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."




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!"




"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.


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 not you."

"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 stuff.

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