A Story of the Everglades.



"JUST where does the sloop lie?" asked Sumner, as the bow of his canoe ran on to the beach where the man stood.

The latter explained the position of the stranded vessel so clearly that the boy, who was familiar with the locality, comprehended it in a moment.

"She's about a mile from the mouth of the creek, and a quarter off shore," said the man. "When the tide went down I partly swum and partly waded to the beach. I don't know how I ever got ashore alive, but the thought of poor Rust out there kinder nerved me on, and so I made it at last. I wouldn't do it again, though, for all the money in Key West. Now I've been here so long waiting for help, and the tide's rising again so fast, that I'm afraid it's all day with poor Rust. If he ain't swept off the wrack by this time he soon will be, and I don't know as there is anything can be done for him. It wouldn't be possible for the schooner to get anywhere near the wrack, she's' dragged in so fur over the reefs, and the small boat isn't built that could live in them seas."

"Yes, she is," said Sumner, quietly, but with a very pale face; "this boat that I am sitting in can live out there, and she's got to do it, too." So saying, he set his double-bladed paddle into the sand, and with a vigorous shove sent the light craft gliding backward into deep water.

The man stared at him in speechless amazement, while the Lieutenant called out: "Don't try it, Sumner! You must be crazy to think of such a thing! You'll only be throwing away your own life for nothing! Come back, and we'll think of some other plan."

"There isn't time to think of another plan," Sumner called back over his shoulder. "I must go, and I know I can do it. If you will have some of the men out there on the beach, ready to help us land, we'll make it easy enough. Goodbye!"

Impelled by vigorous strokes of Sumner's paddle, the Psyche was already gliding down the smooth waters of the sheltered creek, and it was too late to restrain the impetuous young canoeman from carrying out his project. Realizing this, and also that Sumner's plan, hazardous as it seemed, was the only feasible one, Lieutenant Carey, with a heavy heart, set about doing his own share of the work in hand. He took the stranger off to the schooner, and after swallowing a cup of hot coffee, of which he stood greatly in need, the man declared himself ready to guide a party to the beach opposite the place where the sloop lay.

Dinner was ready and waiting on board the Transit but nobody thought of stopping to eat a mouthful after learning the news of what was taking place. The sole anxiety was to reach the beach as quickly as possible. The instant the stranger said he was ready, all hands, except those ordered to remain by the schooner, began to tumble into the available canoes, eager to be set ashore.

Poor Worth was sadly distressed when he heard of the terrible task undertaken by his friend, but he tried to cheer himself and the others by declaring that if any boat could live outside it was the canoe Psyche, and if any living sailor could carry her through the seas, whose angry roar filled the air, it was Sumner Rankin.

In the mean time the brave young fellow who was the object of all this anxiety had reached the mouth of the creek. There, in a sheltered spot, he paused for a few minutes to take breath and make his final preparations for a plunge into the roaring breakers outside.

He set taut the foot steering gear, took double reefs in both his sails, saw that the halyards were clear and ready for instant service, adjusted the rubber apron so that the least possible water should enter the cockpit, and then, with a firm grasp of his paddle, he shoved off.

In another minute he was breasting the huge, combing breakers of the outer bar, and working with desperate energy to force his frail craft through or over them. The roar of waters was deafening, while the fierce gusts rendered breathing difficult. At one moment the sharp bow of the canoe would point vaguely towards the sky, while the next would see it directed into a watery abyss, and plunging downward as though never to rise again. At such moments the rudder would be lifted from the water, and only the most skillful use of the paddle prevented the canoe from broaching to and being rolled over and over, to be finally dashed in fragments on the beach. Again and again the wave crests broke on her deck, sweeping her fore and aft with a blinding mass of hissing water.

Still the boy's strength held out, still his paddle was wielded with regular strokes, and finally he came off victorious in this first bout of his fierce, single-handed struggle. The line of breakers was passed, and riding over the comparatively regular seas beyond, he began working dead to windward for an offing.

Not until lie was a good half-mile off shore, and very nearly exhausted by his tremendous efforts, did he push back the rubber apron, drop his centerboard, and then, steadying the canoe with his paddle, seize a favorable opportunity for hoisting the tiny after-sail that should keep her momentarily headed into the wind. Then, quickly unjointing his paddle and thrusting its parts into the cockpit, he grasped the halyard, and with a single pull set the double-reefed mainsail.

Now was a most critical moment, for as he pulled in on the mainsheet, and the sail began to feel the full force of the wind, the little craft heeled over gunwale under. Only by promptly scrambling to the weather deck, and sitting with his feet braced under the lee coaming, while his whole body was thrown out far over the side, did be prevent her from capsizing. Then she gathered headway and dashed forward. With one hand on the deck tiller, and holding the mainsheet in the other, the boy peered anxiously ahead.

Yes, there was the wreck! Oh, so far away! with clouds of white spray dashing high above it. Could he ever reach it through those tumultuous seas? Lifting him high in the air, where he was exposed to the full force of the wind at one moment, they towered above the deep trough into which he sank at the next, and left his bits of sails shaking as if in a calm. With full confidence in himself and his boat, he believed he could reach it -- and he did.

He had no time to look at the anxious watchers on the beach, but they noted his every movement with painful eagerness. They almost held their breath as some huge wave tossed him high aloft, and again as he was completely hidden from them behind its foam-capped crest. At length they saw him reach a point abreast the wreck, round sharply to under its lee, and seize his paddle. In another minute he was on board, with the first half of his task accomplished.

He found Rust Norris crouching in the lee of the little deckhouse, nearly exhausted with pain, hours of cold drenching, and the terror of his position. The wreck was trembling so violently with each shock of the seas that it seemed as though she must break up beneath their feet.

Rust's left arm was supported in a rude sling made from a strip of his shirt knotted about his neck. He did not speak as the boy bent over him, but an expression of glad surprise and renewed hope lighted his haggard face.

"Come, Rust," shouted Sumner; "with one big effort you'll be all right. They are waiting for you on the beach, and the canoe will carry you that far easy enough, if you can only manage to get into her. You will have to sit low down and steer with your feet while you hold the sheet in your hand. All you'll have to do is to run her in dead before the wind, head on for the beach."

With infinite difficulty the wounded man was finally seated in the narrow cockpit of the frail craft. A moment later it was shoved off from the trembling wreck, and was racing with fearful speed towards the beach. It seemed to leap from the top of one huge wave to the next with out sinking into the intervening hollow. Not until it was dragged safely ashore by those who rushed into the breakers to meet the flying craft did Rust Norris realize that he was her sole occupant.



IF Rust Norris had not been rendered so nearly helpless by his broken arm, Sumner would have endeavored to make the Psyche bear them both safely to land, if not by carrying them, at least by supporting them while they swam alongside. On his way to the wrecked sloop he had thought that perhaps this might be done, but as soon as he discovered Rust's real condition he knew that he might as well leave him there to drown as to attempt to burden the light craft with their double weight. At that moment the lad made up his mind that Rust should have the canoe to himself, and that he would take whatever chance of escape still remained. Thus he had resolutely shoved the canoe off, with its single occupant, while he stayed behind, clinging to the leeward mast stay, and watching with eager eyes the perilous passage to the beach of the man for whom he had risked so much. The act was a bit of that coolly-planned self-sacrificing heroism that stamps true bravery, and distinguishes it from recklessness.

In his exhausted and partially dazed condition, Rust did not realize the sacrifice made by his young deliverer until the canoe had been snatched from the breakers by a dozen willing hands, and drawn high on the beach beyond their cruel grasp. Then, on looking for the boy and seeing that he had remained behind, he uttered a great cry, and sank down limp and helpless on the wet sand.

Those on shore had seen from the first that only one was coming in the canoe, while one was left behind, but they had not known which was approaching them until the Psyche was dragged from the breakers.

Worth was in an agony of despair at his friend's peril. "Let me go to him!" he cried. "I would rather drown than stand here without trying to save him!"

"No; let me go! Let me go!" cried the others; and they made frantic attempts to again launch the canoe through the breakers; but they might as well have tried to launch it through a stone wall. Again and again was it hurled back, while those who strove to launch it were torn from their footing and flung upon the beach.

Then there was a shout of "Here he comes! He is in the water!" and then they strained their eyes in vain for another glimpse of their well-loved young comrade.

Sumner had indeed taken the plunge, but not voluntarily. He had determined to remain by the sloop until she broke up and he was compelled to swim, or until the falling tide should render the passage of that seething maelstrom less terrible. Thus thinking, he was about to seek the poor shelter in which he had found Rust, when a great wave, rushing over the wreck, swept him from it, and buried him beneath tons of its mighty volume.

As he came gasping to the surface he was again almost immediately overwhelmed and borne under. Still, he had drawn a breath of air, and had noted the direction of the beach. He knew that, sooner or later, alive or dead, the waves would cast him ashore. So, without trying to swim forward, he devoted all his energies to reaching the surface, and breathing as often as possible. It seemed as though he were merely rising and sinking, without moving forward an inch, and it required all his self-control to keep from exhausting himself by violent struggles to make a perceptible headway. He retained his presence of mind, however, and after a half-hour of battle the very waves seemed to acknowledge his victory, and tossed him up within sight of the watchers, who had given up all hope except that of finding his lifeless body.

They uttered a glad shout; but it was checked as he was again buried from their sight. Again he appeared, and this time much nearer. Then Lieutenant Carey rushed into the water. Behind him Worth, Quorum, and the others formed a line, tightly grasping each other's hands, and at length the swimmer was within their reach.

With cries of exultant joy, they bore him up the beach and laid him on the sand; but their rejoicing was quickly succeeded by consternation. He lay with closed eyes, cold, and apparently lifeless.

"Hurry to the schooner, Worth, and tell them to have hot water, hot blankets, and a roaring fire ready by the time we get there," demanded the Lieutenant. "We will bring him as quickly as possible."

For hours they worked over the senseless form of the brave lad. So nearly had the sea accomplished its cruel purpose that, but for the lessons learned by the workers years before at Annapolis, Sumner Rankin's life would have been given in exchange for that of Rust Norris. At length a faint color tinged his cheeks, a faint breath came from between his lips, and they knew that their efforts had not been in vain. An hour later he was sleeping quietly, and it was certain that Nature would complete the work of restoration. Then the same skill that had snatched life from apparent death was directed to the setting and proper bandaging of Rust's broken arm.

The Norther continued to blow all that night and the following day, and during this period of enforced idleness Sumner was not allowed to leave his berth. His every want was anticipated, and those who surrounded him vied with each other in their tender care of the lad who had so well won their regard and admiration. As for Rust Norris, his whole nature seemed to have undergone such a change that his former intimates would hardly have recognized him. He sat and watched constantly beside the boy to whom he owed so much, and could hardly be persuaded to leave him for the briefest intervals.

During that second day of storm he made a full confession of how and why he had attempted to thwart the objects of Lieutenant Carey's expedition. His enmity had been particularly directed towards Sumner, and when the latter instead of himself had been chosen to pilot the Transit up the reef, he had formed a plan of revenge that he immediately proceeded to carry out. This was to visit the Everglade Indians, and inform them that the expedition was for the purpose of spying out their lands and preparing for their removal to a faraway country of cold and snow, where they would certainly die. To accomplish this he had joined a Bahama smuggler, and with a cask of rum as a cargo, they had sailed in the small sloop owned by the latter for Cape Sable. Here they met a party of Indians who had come down from the 'Glades on a deer hunt, and after plying them with rum, roused them to anger by their lying tale concerning t he coming expedition. The Indians had departed to spread the report to the rest of their band, and to devise plans for frustrating the supposed purpose of the expedition. Their departure had taken place on the day of the Transit's arrival on the coast, and but for the signs of the approaching Norther, Rust Norris and his companion would have left the lagoon in which they were so snugly anchored that afternoon. Noting these signs they decided to remain where they were until it should blow over. They had no idea when the Transit would reach the cape, nor did they suppose that Sumner was aware of the passage into the lagoon. It was therefore with surprise and consternation that they found those whom they had attempted to injure anchored close beside them. They at once determined to take advantage of the darkness to run out of the lagoon before the storm broke, and seek another shelter among the mangrove keys a short distance farther inland.

They slipped their cable, not daring to lift the anchor for fear the sound might be heard on board the schooner, and drifted down to the mouth of the creek with the last of the ebb tide. Here, while waiting for a breeze, Rust conceived the idea of effectually crippling the expedition by stealing their boats, and went back up the creek for that purpose. He cut them loose from the schooner and attempted to tow them silently down to where the sloop lay, but as the tide had turned and was flooding strongly up the creek, he found it impossible to do so. So he turned them adrift in the belief that they would be driven to the farther side of the lagoon, and dashed to pieces by the storm that was about to break. At any rate, the expedition would be so long delayed in recovering their boats that the news of their coming would be spread over the length and breadth of the Everglades before they could enter them.

So much time had thus been wasted that before the sloop could be taken to the proposed place of safety the storm burst in all its fury. They were forced to seek refuge in another place that was partially exposed, but where with two anchors they could probably have ridden out the gale. With but one, they were dragged from their moorings soon after daylight, and driven on the reef where the sloop now lay. Rust's arm had been broken by the gybing of the main boom, and, left alone, exposed to the fury of those raging seas, he had given up all hope long before Sumner came to his rescue.

"And to think," said Rust, in conclusion, "that the fellow to whom I was doing all this meanness should have come after me and offered to throw away his own life to save mine! I tell you, gentlemen, it makes me feel meaner 'n a toad-fish!"



THAT night the Norther broke, and by the following morning the weather was of that absolutely perfect character that makes the winter the most delightful season of the year in southern Florida. The sun shone with unclouded splendor, fish leaped from the clear waters, gay plumaged birds flitted among the mangroves, and made the air vocal with their happy songs. All nature was full of life and rejoicing.

Although Lieutenant Carey was much disturbed by learning that false reports had been spread among the Indians concerning the nature of his expedition, and realized that its difficulties would be greatly increased thereby, he had no thought of abandoning it. Therefore, by the earliest daylight, preparations were made for repairing the damaged cruisers, and putting them in condition for a new start. The stanch little Psyche had been brought down the beach the day before. There was a good supply of tools aboard the schooner, and Sumner, who had fully recovered his strength, was found to be so expert a shipwright that he was intrusted with planning and directing the repairs to the cruisers, while the Lieutenant, with several men, went to examine into the condition of the wrecked sloop, and see what could be done with her.

They found her injuries so much less than was expected, that within three days she had been hauled off the reef and rendered sufficiently seaworthy for the voyage back to Key West.


In this time also Sumner finished his job on the cruisers, and they were again in thorough order for the work required of them.

Rust Norris was able to render them one service, by guiding them to some cisterns from which they obtained the supply of fresh water, without which they would not have dared proceed on their cruise. His companion, who was a good hunter and well acquainted with the game resorts of that vicinity, provided them with plenty of fresh venison. He also won Worth's regard by giving him a turkey call, or whistle, made from one of the wing bones of a wild turkey, and taking him off before daylight one morning on a turkey hunt. From this the boy returned fully as proud as the fine gobbler he had shot had been a short time before. So elated was he by this success that he declared himself to be the hunter of the expedition from that time forth, and promised to provide it with all necessary meat.

By the close of the third day after the storm everything was in readiness for a new start. That evening was spent in writing letters to be sent back by the sloop, and daylight of the following morning saw both vessels standing out of the lagoon. Once outside, the sloop bore away to the westward, its occupants waving their hats and shouting good wishes to those whom but a few days before they had tried their best to injure.

"I declare!" said Sumner to Worth, "I don't know of anything that makes a fellow feel better than to succeed in turning an enemy into a friend. Now I shall always like Rust Norris, and he will always like me, while if no difficulty had arisen between us we might have been on speaking terms all our lives without caring particularly for each other."

"But, Sumner!" exclaimed Worth, in a grieved tone; "aren't you ever going to care particularly for me, because we have never been enemies?"

"Care for you, old man! After all we have gone through with together, and after all the anxiety we have had on account of each other? Why, Worth, if I cared any more for you than I do, I'd pack you up in cotton and send you home by express, for fear you might get hurt."

"Then please don't," laughed the boy, "for I want to see the Everglades, and do some more hunting before I am sent home."

Although Worth was so impatient to see the 'Glades, and though the Transit was headed directly for them, he was obliged to content himself with seeing other things for some days to come. For a whole week the little schooner threaded her way through the most bewildering maze of islands, reefs, and channels known to this continent. There were thousands of keys of all sizes and shapes, and all covered with the mangroves that had built them. As for the oyster bars, sandbars, and reefs, they were so numerous that, in finding her way through them, the Transit was headed to every point, half-point, and quarter-point of the compass during each hour of her sailing time. The number of times that she ran aground were innumerable, as were those that she was compelled to turn back from some blind channel and seek a new one.

Through all this bewildering maze of keys and channels great tide rivers of crystal water continually ebbed and flowed. In them uncounted millions of fish, from huge silvery tarpon, vampirelike devil-fish, and ravenous sharks, down to tiny fellows, striped, spotted, or mottled with every hue of the rainbow, rushed and sported, chased and being chased, devouring and being devoured, but always affording a fascinating kaleidoscope of darting forms and flashing colors.

Nor was the birdlife of these Ten Thousand Islands less interesting. It seemed as though the numbers of the great Wader and Soarer families collected here were almost as many as the fish on which they feasted. Whole regiments of stately flamingoes, clad in their pink hunting coats, stood solemnly on the mud flats. Squadrons of snow-white pelicans sailed in company with fleets of their more soberly plumaged comrades. Great snowy herons, little white herons, great blue herons, little blue herons, green herons, and yellow-legged herons mingled with cranes and curlews on the oyster bars. Ducks of infinite variety, together with multitudes of coots and cormorants, floated serenely on the placid waters. Overhead, clouds of snowy ibises, outlined in pink by edgings of roseate spoonbills, rose and fell and glinted in the bright sunlight. Gannets, gulls, and ospreys hovered above the fishing grounds. Bald-headed eagles watched them from the tops of tall mangroves, ready at a moment's notice to pounce down and rob them of their prey. Far overhead, black specks against the brilliant blue of the sky, sailed, on motionless pinions, stately men-of-war hawks or frigate. birds -- most graceful of all the soarers. All these, and many more, the mere naming of which would fill a chapter, flocked to these teeming fishing grounds, and afforded a never-ending source of wonder and amusement to our young canoemates and their companions.

Still, with all these, besides the unending difficulties of the navigation to occupy their minds, the end of a week found the boys heartily tired of mangrove keys and blind channels, and anxious for a change of scene. It was, therefore, with a feeling of decided relief that a dark, unbroken line, stretching north and south as far as the eye could reach, was finally sighted and pronounced to be the pine woods of the mainland. Approaching it with infinite difficulty on account of the rapidly shoaling water, they at length discovered a large stream, the water of which was brackish. It was evidently one of the numerous waterways draining the vast reservoirs of the 'Glades into the sea. Here the exploring party was to leave the Transit and take to the smaller craft, in which they proposed to penetrate the interior.

Again an evening was devoted to writing letters to be sent back by the schooner, and again all hands were ordered to turn out by daylight.

Lieutenant Carey had decided to send one of the cruisers back, and to take but one besides the three canoes into the 'Glades. The recent difficulties of navigation had shown him that a full crew would be needed to carry the schooner back to deep water, and he also imagined that the fewer boats the explorers had to force through the 'Glades the easier they would get along. The Indians, too, would be less suspicious of a small party than of a large one. Thus he decided to limit the party to himself and the two boys in the canoes, with Quorum and one other man in the cruiser, or five in all.

With a breakfast by lamplight, and the final preparations hurried as much as possible, the sun was just rising when the little fleet shoved off from the Transit, and with flashing paddles entered the mouth of the dark looking river, the waters of which, in all probability, the keels of white men's boats were now to furrow for the first time.

"Goodbye, Mr. Sloe! You want to hurry round to Cape Florida, or we'll be there first!"

"Goodbye, Quorum! Look out for that woolly scalp of yours!" came from the schooner.

"Goodbye! Good luck! Goodbye!" and then the canoes rounded a wooded point, and were lost to sight of those who watched their first plunge into the trackless wilderness.



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

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