A Story of the Everglades.



THE snapping of that pole marked the bitterest moment of Sumner Rankin's life. With it went his only hope of navigating his rude craft to the friendly shore of the key, past which he now seemed to be drifting with terrible rapidity. He could make out the dim forms of its trees, and of the deserted buildings, in one of which he had proposed to spend the night. He could even hear the rustle of its palm leaves in the light evening breeze, and the gentle plash of waters on its rocky coast. It was so near that he could easily have swum to it. He thought of making the attempt, but a single glance at the phosphorescent flashes beneath him convinced him of its hopelessness. No, it was safer to remain where he was, even though he should be carried out to sea through one of the numerous channels in the outer reef. Supposing his raft should strand on the reef, what chance was there of its holding together until daylight, or even for a few minutes? He knew that if a sea should arise there was none

Now Indian Key was lost to sight behind him, and he was alone, with only his own unhappy thoughts for company. He knew that those waters were seldom traversed by vessels of any description in the night time, most of the reef sailors preferring to come to anchor at sunset. Above him shone the stars, and far ahead gleamed the white and red flashes of Alligator Light. All else was darkness and utter desolation.

The poor lad sat on the box containing his slender store of provisions, and buried his face in his hands. How thankful he was that his mother could not see him now! She was at least spared that sorrow. He wondered what she was doing. Then his thoughts turned to those whom he had left but a few hours before. Why had he not been content to stay with them, and await patiently the relief that must come to them sooner or later? Perhaps even now the mysterious owner of those goods had arrived, and Worth was sitting with a merry party beside the fire, while old Quorum was preparing supper. No, they must have already eaten supper, and now Quorum was blissfully smoking his pipe, while Worth was comfortably stretched out on his bed of blankets. Oh, what a fool he had been to let a false pride in his own strength and ability get the better of his prudence! He might have known that there were a hundred chances of being swept past the little rocky key to one of successfully landing on it. He had known it, but his obstinate pride in his own superior skill had not allowed him to acknowledge it, and now it was too late.

At length, feeling faint from hunger, the poor boy roused himself, and ate a few mouthfuls of food from his provision chest. As he contrasted this meal and its surroundings with the merry supper of the evening before, the wretchedness of his situation was forced upon him more strongly than ever. By this time a breeze that caused little waves to break upon and occasionally wash completely over the raft had sprung up in the southwest, and by the changing position of Alligator Light, Sumner became aware that he was drifting up the reef. The steadily increasing roar of its breakers informed him at the same time that he was approaching closer to it with each moment.

Finally he was abreast of the light, and a mile or so from it, while the sound of the breakers was all about him. He was on the line of the reef. In a few minutes more he would either have passed into the open sea beyond it, or his ill-built raft would strand and be broken to pieces on its cruel rocks. During the succeeding five minutes he almost held his breath. The strain of the suspense was awful, and the boy hardly knew which fate he dreaded the most. At the end of that time it was decided. The sound of the breakers certainly came from behind him. lie had passed out through some channel, and was now on the open sea. At the same time the waves that washed over his raft were larger, so that before long he was thoroughly drenched by them, and sat shivering in the chill night wind. Now the strong current of the Gulf Stream aided the wind to bear him up the reef, and after a few hours the brightness of Alligator Light was so sensibly diminished that he knew he must be several miles from it.

Once during the night he saw the light of a steamship passing at no great distance from him; but his frantic cries for help were either unheard or unheeded, for no attention was paid to them. Then he began to pray for the daylight that seemed as though it would never come. How wearily the hours dragged and how cold he was! He was wet through, and chilled to the bone.

When at length the welcome dawn began to tinge the eastern sky, it found the lad half-lying on the raft, clinging to the lashings of the little provision chest, and lost to consciousness in the sleep of utter exhaustion. In this condition he was discovered by the keen-eyed lookout of a westbound steamer that was hugging the reef to escape as much as might be the force of the Gulf Stream. With reversed engines and slackening speed, the great ship passed within a hundred yards of him, but he knew nothing of it.

Nor did he awake until he heard a gruff, but pitying voice close beside him, saying, "Poor fellow, he must be dead!" The next moment two pairs of powerful arms had dragged him into the boat that had been lowered for him, and as he sat up in its bottom rubbing his eyes, he seemed to have just awakened from a hideous nightmare. A few minutes later the boat with its crew had been hoisted to the deck, the steamer was again pursuing her way towards Key West, and Sumner, wrapped in hot blankets, was occupying a berth in a vacant stateroom, surrounded by the sympathizing faces of those who were anxious to anticipate his every want.

He was sound asleep when, half an hour from that time, the steamer neared Alligator Light, and a small boat was seen pulling off from it so as to intercept her. At the sight of this boat the first officer immediately began to collect such late papers and magazines as the passengers were willing to contribute, and tying them into a package. This he lashed to a bit of wood, which he intended to toss overboard for the lightkeeper to pick up. In this way the reef lights are kept supplied with New York papers only three or four days old. The same papers, passing through the mails, do not reach the scattered dwellers on the keys for ten days or two weeks from the date of their publication.

As the steamer neared the boat from Alligator Light its occupant was seen to hold up a small package wrapped in canvas, which was at once understood to contain dispatches that he wished to send to Key West. So the end of a light line was flung to him, he skillfully made the package fast to it without delaying the ship a moment, and it was hauled aboard. Among the letters that it contained was one directed to the editor of the only daily paper in Key West, and this was delivered promptly on the steamer's arrival at that port.

Late that afternoon, when Mrs. Rankin was slowly regaining her composure after the shock of Sumner's sudden and unlooked-for appearance at home, and was listening with breathless interest to an account of his recent adventures, a copy of the evening paper was left at the house. Sumner was too busy assuring his mother that he was not suffering the slightest ill effect from his exposure of the night before, to look at it then. When, an hour later, he found time to do so, the leading item on the first page at once attracted his attention. It was headed, "A Mystery of the Reef," and after glancing hastily through it, the boy sprang to his feet, shouting:

" Hurrah, mother! The disappearance of the canoes is explained at last, and they are safe and sound, after all."




As Mrs. Rankin came into the room, on hearing Sumner's exclamation, he read aloud the article in the Daily Equator that had so excited him, and which was as follows:


"By the steamship Comal, which arrived in this port today, we receive a curious bit of news from Keeper Spencer, of Alligator Light. On the evening of the 15th, as he was in the lantern of the tower preparing to Tight the lamp, he noticed two small craft of a most unusual description rapidly approaching from the direction of the keys. One appeared to be in tow of the other, but in neither could a human being be discovered. There were no signs of oars, sails, paddles, or steam, and yet the movement of the boats through the water was at the rate of about ten knots an hour. It was also very erratic, and though their general course was towards the reef, they approached it by a series of zigzags, now taking a sharp sheer to port, and directly another to starboard. As the keeper could not leave the tower at that moment, he directed Assistant Albury to take the lighthouse skiff, intercept the craft, if possible, and investigate their character.

With great difficulty, and after an exciting chase, Mr. Albury succeeded in getting alongside the leading boat of the two, and in making fast to it. It proved to be a decked canoe, of exquisite workmanship and fittings, completely equipped for cruising, bearing the name Psyche in silver letters on either bow. The second canoe, which was a counterpart of the first, was named Cupid. Both were in tow of an immense Jew-fish, which had succeeded in entangling itself in the cable with which the Psyche had evidently been anchored. It is probable that one of the flukes of the anchor caught in the creature's gills, though just how it happened will never be known, as Mr. Albury, being unable to capture the monster, was obliged to cut the cable and let him go. Nothing is known as to the fate of the owners of these canoes, and they are now at the lighthouse awaiting a claimant.

"Just as we go to press we learn that early this morning the Comal picked up a young man in the Gulf, not far from Alligator Light. We were unable to obtain his name in time for insertion in today's paper, but will give it, with full particulars concerning him, in tomorrow's issue. He may be able to throw some light on the mystery of the canoes."


"I should rather think he could!" laughed Sumner, as he finished reading. "But did you ever hear of such a thing, mother? The idea of a rascally Jew-fish running off with our canoes! I never thought of such a thing as that happening. And how wonderfully it has all turned out! I should have looked everywhere for them rather than at Alligator Light. I should never have dared attempt to navigate the raft that far, either. To think, too, that I should have been picked up by the very steamer that brought the news! How dreadfully you would have felt on reading it, if I hadn't got here first! Wouldn't you, mother dear?"

"Indeed I should, my boy; and I shall never be able to express my gratitude for your wonderful preservation."

"But poor Worth!" exclaimed Sumner. "How I wish he knew all about it, and how awfully anxious he must be! I only hope he won't attempt to go to Indian Key to look for me before I can get back there. That's something I must see about at once, and I must take the very first boat that goes up the reef. Just think how I should feel if anything were to happen to him, when Mr. Manton placed him in my care, too! If it wasn't for the way things have turned out, I should feel guilty at having left him there. I wouldn't have done it, though, if Quorum hadn't been on hand to look after him. He surely will keep him out of harm's way until I can get back."

"I hate to think of your going back there again," said Mrs. Rankin, with a sigh, "though of course it is your duty to do so. But you will be careful, and not run into any more such dreadful perils, won't you, dear ?"

"Yes, mother; I promise not to run into a single peril that I can help, and if I meet one, I will try my best to get out of its way," laughed the boy, whose high spirits had quickly returned with the prospect of recovering his beloved canoe.

"Well," sighed Mrs. Rankin, "so long as you must go, I shouldn't be surprised if Lieutenant Carey would take you in the Transit. I believe he intends to leave tomorrow morning for a trip up the reef, and to make some kind of a survey in the Everglades. He has been staying here for a few days, and is up in his room now."

"Oh, mother!" cried the boy, springing to his feet, "the Everglades! How I should love to go!"

"Now, Sumner -- " began Mrs. Rankin, in a tone of expostulation; but the boy had already left the room, and was on his way upstairs.

Lieutenant Carey was an old friend, who had served under Commander Rankin, and had known Sumner ever since the boy was twelve years old. He had heard of his unexpected return, and only waited until the first interview between the young canoeman and his mother should be ended before going down to greet him. Now he listened to Sumner's story with the deepest interest, and when it was ended, he said:

"Of course I will take you up the reef as fat as Alligator, my boy, and shall be glad of your company. I only wish you would go with us as far as the mainland, and act as pilot through the Keys. They are not charted, you know, and as I have never been through them, I was on the point of engaging a fellow named Rust Norris as pilot, but I'd much rather have you. What do you say? Can't I enlist you in Uncle Sam's service for a week or so?"

"I should like nothing better," answered Sumner, "only, you see, I am bound just now to look

after Worth Manton, and take him up the reef to Cape Florida, where we are due by the first of April."

"Perhaps we can persuade him to go along too. It won't be much out of your way, and you've lots of time to finish your trip between now and the first of April. I'll risk it anyhow, for I don't like the looks of that fellow Norris, and am only too glad of an excuse for not engaging him."

"Then there is Quorum, the cook," added Sumner, reflectively. "I wonder what will become of him?"

"A cook, do you say? What sort of a cook? A good one?"

"One of the best on the reef," replied Sumner. "Then he is just the man I want to get hold of for our trip. I am only waiting now for a cook, and should start this evening if I had found one to suit me. If you will guarantee him, we'll get away at once, and make the old Transit hum up the reef in the hope of capturing him before he makes any other engagement."

"There is not much chance for him to make an engagement where he is now," laughed Sumner. "And, at any rate, I'm sure he wouldn't leave Worth until I get back. I shall be only too glad to start tonight though, for poor Worth must be terribly anxious, and the sooner I get to him the better."

Thus it was settled, and as soon as supper was over, after a loving, lingering farewell from his mother, who repeated over and over again her charges that he should shun all perilous adventures, the boy found himself once more afloat. Mrs. Rankin had promised to write a long letter to the Mantons that very evening, assuring them of Worth's safety up to the date of the day before, and being thus relieved from this duty, Sumner set forth, with a light heart on his second cruise up the reef.

The Transit was a comfortable, schooner rigged sharpie, about sixty feet long, built by the Government for the use of the Coast Survey in shallow southern waters. She had great breadth of beam, and was a stanch sea boat, though she drew but eighteen inches of water, and Lieutenant Carey had no hesitation in putting her outside for a night run up the Hawk Channel.

The especial duty now to be undertaken was an exploration of the Everglades to ascertain their value as a permanent reservation for the Florida Seminoles. T These Indians, hemmed in on all sides by white settlers, were being gradually driven from one field and hunting ground after another. In consequence they were becoming restive, and the necessity of doing something in the way of assuring them a permanent location had for some time been apparent. Thus a survey of the 'Glades was finally ordered, and Lieutenant Carey had been detailed for the duty, with permission to make up such a party to accompany him as he saw fit.

His present command on the Transit consisted of Ensign Sloe, and six men forward. It was intended that three of these should be taken into the 'Glades, while Mr. Sloe, with the other three, was to take the sharpie, from the point where the exploring party left her, around to Cape Florida, and there await their arrival.

On the deck of the schooner and towing behind her were three novel craft, in which Lieutenant Carey intended to conduct his explorations of the swamps and grassy waterways of the interior. One of these was an open basswood canoe built in Canada, shaped very much like a birch bark, and capable of carrying four men. The others were the odd-looking boats, with bottoms shaped like tablespoons, that are so popular as ducking-boats on the New Jersey coast, and are known as Barnegat cruisers. One of these was named Terrapin and the other Gopher, while the open canoe bore the Seminole name of Hul-la-lah (the wind).

Before a brisk southerly breeze, in spite of the boats dragging behind her, the Transit made rapid progress. Ere it was time to turn in, Key West Light was low in the water astern, while that on American Shoal shone steady and bright off the starboard bow. The wind held fresh all night, so that by morning both American Shoal and Sombrero had been passed, and the sharpie was off the western end of Lower Metacumba, with Alligator Light flashing out its last gleam in the light of the rising sun.



As Sumner was anxious to reach Lignum Vitae by the shortest possible route, the Transit was headed in through the channel between Lower Metacumba and Long keys. Both tide and wind being with her, the nimble-footed sharpie seemed to fly past the low reefs and sandspits on either side. Now she skimmed by the feeding grounds of flocks of gray pelicans, whose wise expressions and bald heads gave them the appearance of groups of old men, and then passed an old sponge crawl, or the worm eaten hull of some ancient wreck, both of which were covered with countless numbers of cormorants, gannets, and gulls. Waiting, with outstretched necks and pinions half spread, until the schooner was within a stone's throw, these would fly with discordant cries of anger, wheel in great circles, and return to the places from which they had been driven the moment the threatened danger had passed.

Even after the sharpie was well inside the bay, and the island they sought was in sight, they could not lay a direct course towards it on account of a reef several miles in length that presented an effectual barrier to anything larger than a canoe. But one narrow channel cut through it, and this was away to the northward, close under a tiny mangrove key. Towards this then they steered, with Sumner at the tiller, for he was the only one on board familiar with the intricate navigation of those waters.

"You are certain that you are right, Sumner?" inquired Lieutenant Carey, anxiously, as they seemed about to drive headlong on the bar, and an ominous wake of muddy water showed that they were dragging bottom.

"Certain," answered the boy, quietly.

"All right, then; I've nothing to say."

Inch by inch the great centerboard rose in its trunk, and the slack of its pennant was taken in, as the water rapidly shoaled. Now she dragged so heavily that it seemed as though she were about to stop. Again the lieutenant looked at Sumner, and then cast a significant glance at the man stationed by the foresheet. But the boy never hesitated nor betrayed the least nervousness. An instant later the tiller was jammed hard over, there was a sharp order of "Trim in!" and, flying almost into the teeth of the wind, the light vessel shot through an Opening so narrow that she scraped bottom on both sides, and in another moment was dashing through deep water on the opposite side of the bar.

From here the run to Lignum Vitae was a long and short leg beat, with numerous shoals to be avoided. In spite of being kept busy with these, Sumner found time to note and wonder at a great column of smoke that rose from the island. What could Worth and Quorum be about? It looked as though they had managed to set the forest on fire. Filled with an uneasy apprehension, he jumped into a boat the moment the Transit's anchor was dropped in the well-remembered cove, and sculled himself ashore. To his amazement he heard the sound of many voices, and discovered a dozen or so of men hard at work apparently cutting down the forest and burning it.


As he stepped ashore, and looked in vain for the familiar figures of his friends, a pleasant-faced young man advanced from where the laborers were at work to meet him.

"Can you tell me, sir, what has become of a boy named Worth Manton and an old colored man whom I left here the day before yesterday?" Sumner inquired, anxiously.

"If you mean the two whom I found camped here, and helping themselves to my provisions, I think I can," answered the young man, with a smile. "They went over to Indian Key last evening on the boat that brought me here yesterday. They were very anxious concerning the fate of a friend who left them the evening before, and went over there on a raft, I believe they said. Can it be that you are the person they are seeking?"

"Yes, sir, I am."

"Then you are Sumner Rankin, and I am very happy to meet you. My name is Haines. I have bought this key, and am clearing it, preparatory to having it planted with coconuts. The provisions and camp outfit that appeared here so mysteriously to you and your companions belong to me, and were left here by the mail schooner on her way up the reef. I expected to arrive, with my men, about the same time, but was detained. I am very glad, however, that they came in time to relieve your distress. I am also much obliged to you for affording them a shelter from the rain, without which some of the things would have been injured. Now will you pardon my curiosity if I ask how you happen to arrive here in a schooner from that direction when your friends said you had gone the other way, and were confident of finding you on Indian Key?"

When Sumner had given a brief outline of his recent adventure, Mr. Haines said: "You certainly have had a most remarkable e experience, and I am glad your friends did not know of it, for young Manton was worried enough about you as it was. However, you will soon rejoin them, and when you have recovered your canoes, if you feel so inclined, I should be pleased to have you return here as my guests for as long as you choose to stay."

Sumner thanked him, and said he should be happy to stop there on his return from the mainland. Then, begging to be excused, as he was impatient to go in search of his comrades, he jumped into his boat and returned to the Transit.

Lieutenant Carey was perfectly willing to proceed at once to Indian Key, but the tide was still running flood, and the breeze, which was each moment becoming lighter, was dead ahead for a run out through the channel. Under the circumstances, it would be useless to lift the anchor, and the impatient boy was forced to wait for the tide to turn. When it finally began to run ebb, the breeze had died out so entirely that there was not even the faintest ripple on the water, and another season of waiting was unavoidable.

By the lieutenant's invitation Mr. Haines came off and dined with them. He proved a most charming companion, and laughed heartily at Sumner's description of the amazement with which he, Worth, and Quorum had discovered the mysterious godsend of provisions. Mr. Haines declared that it was one of the best jokes he had ever known; though he was in doubt as to whether it was on him or on them. He appreciated Sumner's impatience to be off, and when, late in the afternoon, a fair breeze sprang up, he made haste to take his leave that their departure might not be delayed.

It was nearly sunset when the Transit approached Indian Key so closely that objects the size of a man could be distinguished on it. Sumner was again at the helm, and he tried not to neglect his steering; but he could not keep his eyes from scanning anxiously every discernible foot of its surface. To his great disappointment not a soul appeared.

"They may be on the other side, keeping a lookout for passing vessels," suggested Lieutenant Carey.

Hoping that this might be the case, but still heavy-hearted and anxious, Sumner went ashore, accompanied by the lieutenant. For an hour they searched over every foot of the key, and through its deserted buildings, shouting as they went, but their search was in vain. Nothing was seen of the lost ones, nor had they left a trace to show that they had ever been on the island.

"It's no use," said Sumner at length; "they evidently are not here, and must have gone on in the boat that brought them when they failed to find me. Now, I don't know of anything to do but to go out to the lighthouse after the canoes, and then come back here and wait. If Worth has gone on up the reef, he must pass here on his way back, while if he has gone the other way, he will hear of me at Key West and come back here again. I'm awfully sorry that I can't go with you to the mainland, but I don't see how I possibly can under the circumstances."

Although the boy tried to speak cheerfully, and to take the brightest possible view of the disappearance of his young comrade, he was filled with anxiety, and it was with a heavy heart that he turned into his berth on board the schooner Transit that night.




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

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