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CHAPTER XI LOST ON CAPTIVE ISLAND
Charlotte Harbor was so flooded with moonlight that the little wind ripples shone like frosted silver. The “Gazelle,” lying peacefully at anchor, floated like a shadow on the placid water. Kenneth lay asleep on the cabin roof, where he had moved from the more cramped position in the cockpit. Soundly as a tired man should, he slept; then, disturbed by dreams of battles with wind and wave, he stirred, working his arms and legs like a dog who has visions of the chase. At first he moved uneasily, but still lay in the same position, then, still dead asleep, began to work over to the yacht’s rail. A long, strong roller came in from the Gulf and rocked the yawl so that the deck sloped sharply; there was a sudden great splash, and then all was still, the ripples circling away from the agitated spot. Suddenly the waters began to show signs of a struggle below, and an instant later a bedraggled white figure splashed to the surface and began spouting and spluttering. Kenneth coughed and wheezed as he got rid of a large quantity of warm, salt liquid, and between gasps called himself all the names his water-soaked brain could think of. He finally pulled himself up on deck—rather weakly—and lay down in the cockpit to rest a minute.

“Well, I’ll be jiggered, if that wasn’t the greatest fool stunt! I am mighty glad the other fellows were not around. I should never have heard the last of it.”

He turned to go below, and, as he did so, he heard the far distant crack of a rifle.

“Must be something doing with the turtles,” he thought.

The rifle shot which Ransom heard was fired by Frank at the great turtle, which, in spite of the hatchet in its skull and the boy on its back, was making for the sea, determined to escape. The hatchet, half buried in the thick bone, had no more apparent effect upon it than the dropping of an oyster shell on it would have had.

“Shoot him again, Frank!” shouted Arthur from his perch. “We’ve simply got to stop him.”

The boy took careful aim at the sinister black eye, the only vulnerable spot visible, and fired. With a heave that threw Arthur from his feet, the great creature made its last struggle for freedom, throwing the sand in showers and digging great holes in the coarse sand, then, folding its legs and tail beneath its roof-like shell, it died.

For a minute, the victor gazed at his victim, and then, wiping away an imaginary tear of regret, went to search for eggs. In a hollow near the spot where the hunters had found Mrs. Turtle, her eggs were unearthed—several dozen of them. The boys put them in a canvas bag which they carried, and went on to hunt for more shellbacks.

Before long they came again upon the tell-tale tracks in the sand, and found a turtle at the end of them; smaller, but one even more active than the other.

It was with great difficulty that they managed to get a long piece of driftwood under the shell, and by the aid of this leverage “end her over.” Frank and Arthur immediately rushed forward to end her misery, and received a shower of sand in their faces that nearly blinded them. They retired out of range in confusion, and dug the sand out of eyes, ears, and mouths. With powerful sweep-like strokes, the turtle clawed the beach in its efforts to right itself, and scooped the sand until it had dug holes for each of its four legs, so deep that the coarse grains were beyond its reach, and it lay helplessly sprawling.

With a single hatchet stroke, turtle number two was despatched, and the victors sat a minute beside their game to rest.

“Gracious! I’d like to have these turtles in Chicago,” remarked Frank, with speculative instinct. “Just think of the gallons of green turtle soup they would make; and it cost twenty-five cents a half-pint plateful! Holy smoke, we would be millionaires in no time.”

“But what are we going to do with them now?” Arthur had a way of coming down to realities with a sickening thud.

As if in answer to the question, the lighthouse keeper came towards them out of the fast brightening dawn, and showed them how to dismember the creatures.

Taking two great hams, the two boys slung them on a pole stretched between them, and started back to the place where they had left “His Nibs.” The pieces of turtle meat, the guns, lantern, and bag of eggs made such a heavy load that they were glad enough when they reached the spot where the small boat had been left.

Arthur and Frank looked out over the water and saw the “Gazelle” swinging at anchor, glorified in the warm colors of the sunrise.

“What’s the matter with Ken?” Frank exclaimed, pointing with his gun barrel at the figure on the yacht’s deck, which waved and gestured frantically.

“He is pointing at something. What’s the matter with the chump? He is shouting.” Arthur stopped to listen. The faint sound of a voice came over the harbor, but they could not make out what it said.

“He is pointing.” Arthur was shading his eyes and looking intently. “What, in the name of common sense, is—By George, look at ‘His Nibs.’” Arthur was pointing now at the little boat, which, like a mischievous youngster, was bobbing airily about a short distance from shore.

“Jove! it’s well we came along when we did; that little tub would have been out to sea in a minute.”

As it was, Arthur had to swim for it, and only caught the truant after a long race. “The next time I leave you alone,” he said, as he pulled himself over the stern, “I am going to make you fast to a ten-ton anchor.”

It was a merry feast that the reunited three enjoyed that morning. Turtle steak, which Kenneth declared to be equal to porterhouse and much like it in flavor, was the pièce de résistance; but the talk and chaff were the garnishings that made the meal worth while.

“You have got to wash dishes, old man,” Kenneth said to his mate, when every vestige of the breakfast had disappeared, “while Frank and I get this old house-boat under way.”
“Gazelle, Gazelle,
She’ll run pell-mell
With every stitch a-drawing;
O’er waters smooth,
And waters rough,
The seas her forefoot spurning.”

He sang light-heartedly as he went on deck.

Soon Arthur heard the cheep, cheep of the halliard blocks as the mainsail was hoisted, then the metallic clink of the ratchet on the capstan; Frank’s cry, “She’s broke!” was followed by the swift whirr of the jib halliards hauled taut and the creak of the blocks as the mainsail was sheeted home. Then the slap, slap of the little waves against the yacht’s sides as she heeled to the fresh breeze told Arthur that they were under way again.

“There’s no use talking, this beats farming,” Arthur said to himself. “But, Je-rusalem, we had it hard on the Old Mississippi. I don’t hanker for any more of that.”

After getting under way, the order was: “All hands and the cook prepare meat.” There was a large amount of turtle meat left that was too valuable to be wasted. The flesh was cut up into strips, thoroughly sprinkled with salt, and hung up in the rigging, where the sun shone full upon it, to dry. It was not a very appetizing job, nor did the yacht herself present a very attractive appearance, but the product turned out all right. Turtle meat and turtle eggs were on the bill of fare for some time.

Kenneth made the unsavory remark that if the meat-preserving experiment proved a failure, the “Gazelle” would be about as fragrant as a sponge-fishing boat.

After a four hours’ run, Frank, who climbed up into the port rigging, glass in hand, made out Captive Island, a low-lying strip of land that just showed above the surface of the water.

As they drew nearer, they could see that it was densely wooded—palms tossed their feathery heads; the great live oaks stretched out their mighty arms sturdily; and here and there a cedar stood out black in contrast with the lighter greens.

“I’d like to explore that island,” said Arthur. “What’s the matter with laying off there for the night?”

“All right; harbor is good and water enough,” Kenneth admitted, after looking at the charts.

The anchor was let go into three fathoms, off a sort of rude landing, which they afterward found was built by a man who lived on the island and raised vegetables for the northern market.

After supper, Frank and Arthur went ashore, but soon returned, driven away by mosquitoes. Frank declared that he had seen enough of that place at close quarters, and that if the skipper and Arthur wanted to explore, he was satisfied to stay and tend ship.

“Why,” said he, “except where the fellow has his vegetable patch, the whole place is a morass right down to the water’s edge. I guess there is a beach on the Gulf side, now I think of it.”

“That’s it—that beach! That’s what I want to explore.” Arthur was of an investigating turn of mind.

It was unnecessary to go through the usual plan of drawing lots to determine who should go and who should stay; Frank stuck to his previous statement that he would not go “chasing round in that miserable mud hole.” After all the morning’s work was done, the skipper and the mate got into “His Nibs” and rowed off.

The little landing was a primitive affair, hardly strong enough, the two boys thought, to allow of very heavy shipments being made from it; but it was sufficiently sturdy to bear their weight without a tremor. From it led a path through tilled land, green with the young shoots of a freshly-planted crop. This road Kenneth and Arthur followed for some distance. Fields crowded it closely on either side, then it branched, and the boys found themselves walking on a narrow strip of solid ground, hemmed in on both sides by a morass so deep and uncanny that they shivered. Tall palmettos grew out of the slimy ground, and vines twisted and wound in every direction like thin, green serpents; gray moss hung from the branches everywhere, like veils placed to hide some ghastly mystery. The path was well trod and firm, and the two boys, feeling that it must lead somewhere, went on quickly. For an hour, they travelled through the swamp, the way winding in and out among the trees wherever the earth was firm.

“I wonder if this is another case of ‘Lost in the Dismal Swamp,’” said Arthur, whose looks belied his cheerful tone.

“No; this path is perfectly clear. It will be easy enough to get back, if we want to,” Kenneth replied. “Getting cold feet?”

“No, sure not; but I would like to get out into the open, all the same.”

The thick trees shut out all the breeze there was, and the damp, currentless air was heavy with the odors of decaying vegetable matter. Perspiration was running down the boys’ faces, and spots of dampness began to show on the backs of their white jumpers.

“Hurrah!” shouted Kenneth, “there’s the beach.”

A rift in the trees showed the blue sky, and the invigorating sound of surf reached their ears. Soon they came upon a stretch of sand that shone white under the morning sun—smooth and hard and clean as a newly-swept floor.

In a minute the two were running races up the beach that stretched before them like a straightaway track. They ran and frolicked from the pure joy of living. Under the clear sky and shining sun, they forgot the gloomy forest and the stagnant marsh. Not till they were all out of breath, did the rollicking skipper and his undignified mate stop to rest; then they stretched at full length on the clean sand, and gave themselves up to the joys of doing nothing, when there was no need to work under the stress of an exacting conscience.

Neither of the boys realized how long they had lain there, supremely comfortable as they were, until the pang of hunger began to make itself felt.

“Look at that, Ken,” Arthur exclaimed, pointing to the sun long past the meridian. “Why, it must be afternoon.”

“My stomach feels like it,” the other admitted. “Better be going back, I guess.”

They got themselves up, and began walking leisurely along the beach, stopping now and then to pick up a shell or to dip their bare feet in the up-running waves.

“This is the place, Ken,” said Arthur, turning to two tall palmettos growing on the edge of the forest.

“No, that isn’t it,” the other replied. “There was a crooked cedar near the path where we came out.”

“I bet it’s the place,” Arthur said positively. “Let me prove it to you.”

When they reached the trees mentioned, they glanced beyond them, and saw the thick black ooze of the morass. A pale fungus thrust out of the mud here and there added to the dismal aspect of the place.

“Ugh!” Arthur shivered.

“I told you so,” Kenneth jeered; “not a sign of a path.”

They walked on, looking for the crooked cedar, but not one could be seen. Everywhere were palmettos, straight and tall, swaying in the breeze and beckoning like sirens alluring them to the destruction that lurked just beyond.

Every little opening that looked as if a path might lead from it was searched eagerly, but the black swamp always stared them in the face whenever they looked beyond the first line of trees. Hour after hour they searched, at first hopefully, then doggedly, driven on by the feeling that they must do something—that if they hunted carefully enough and persistently the way would surely be found.

The sun sank lower and lower, and the feather-like fronds of the trees cast longer and longer shadows over the beach; still the boys searched for that mysterious path. Thirst was added to ravenous hunger that increased every minute. The long walk through the woods, and later the almost continuous exposure to the sun, had brought on a longing for water that was getting well-nigh unbearable.

“What fools we were not to mark the trees where we came out,” Kenneth wailed, as they dropped down on the sand, worn out. “We were so glad to get out of the place that we did not think about getting through again.”

“We can’t go around,” Kenneth said, thinking aloud; “the swamp comes right down to the water on all sides of the island but this. I guess we have got to stick it out all night, old man.” Kenneth laid his hand on his friend’s shoulder.

“My, but I’m thirsty!” was the mate’s only comment.

With the suddenness peculiar to the tropics, the sun went down in a blaze of color, and in its stead came a cloud of mosquitoes, bloodthirsty and poisonous. Without protection of any kind, the boys suffered terribly—faces, hands, and feet were soon covered with the itching little spots, that spread until their whole bodies were covered with the bites of the pests. Their thirst increased until their mouths seemed like dry ovens lined with dust and cracked with heat. Hunger, too, assailed them—the hunger of healthy appetites long unappeased, gnawing, and weakening.

Kenneth gathered some half-green wood from the edge of the forest, built a fire, and in the dense smoke they sat as long as they could, or until they choked.

Then, in order that one, at least, might rest, they took turns in brushing the invading mosquitoes from each other. While one rested, the other plied a palm branch; and so they passed the long night—interminable it seemed.

At length the gray dawn began to steal over the sea, and the boys, weak with hunger, and almost frantic with parching thirst, thanked God for it. They knew that with the appearance of the sun the mosquitoes would go, and with the hope that “springs eternal,” longed to begin the search for the path again.

Soon the heavens were lighted with the glory of the sunrise, and the waters, tinged with its colors, heaved and tossed like a great surface of iridescent molten metal—constantly changing, showing new shades that ran into one another, dimpled, flamed, and faded.

Arthur and Kenneth could appreciate the beauty of the scene in a dull sort of way only. They suffered terribly; the pangs of hunger and the tortures of thirst drove all else from their minds.

A plunge in the cool surf, however, freshened them up greatly, though it took all their resolution to resist the temptation to drink the intensely salt water.

As they were about to begin their search anew, they noticed a little black dog trotting about near the edge of the woods. The boys were very much pleased to see the little beast. He was frisky and well fed—evidently the pet of some household—and the lost ones were glad of even this remote connection with civilization.

Kenneth suddenly made an exclamation; he tried to whistle also, but his parched lips would not admit of it.

“I’ve got an idea, Art. Listen.”

Arthur stopped trying to make friends with the little visitor.

“That dog got here somehow; he must have come along some path, and he will know the way back. We have got to make him go home, then we will follow. See?”

Arthur did see, and changed his tactics accordingly. “Go home!” he shouted. But the dog suddenly grew very friendly, wagged his tail, and came trotting across the sand towards them. It was most exasperating. “Go home!” both shouted at once, and waved their arms menacing. The dog evidently thought it some kind of a game, and he frolicked about as if it was the greatest fun imaginable. “It won’t do,” muttered the older boy, and he stooped as if to pick up a stone. This was an old game that the dog fully understood. Many a time had he chased a stick into the water. He danced about and barked joyfully.

“There, you miserable little critter, go home!” Kenneth threw a pebble that struck just before the dog’s nose, and he stopped in astonishment. Another well-directed stone changed his doggie joy and confidence to fear, and, lowering his tail, he began to slink towards the woods and the swamp.

The boys’ hearts beat high with hope, though they felt ashamed to treat such a friendly little beast so unkindly. A well-feigned angry shout and threatening gestures were enough to make their involuntary friend turn tail and run for home. Once started, he ran in earnest, and fearful that they would lose sight of him before he showed the path, the boys rushed after, panting and almost fainting with hunger and thirst. Once they thought that they had lost their guide, and their hearts sank; but, in a minute or two, they saw him enter the woods, and they carefully marked the place, so that they were able to follow without trouble. The entrance was a most unlikely place, and they had passed it many times, but soon they saw clearly a well-beaten path leading through the maze of tree trunks and veiling moss.

With hearts full of thankfulness, they followed along, faint, dizzy, and well-nigh exhausted, but withal hopeful and happy once more. At no great distance they came to a comfortable plantation house, and there in the front yard—blessed sight!—was a well with tin dipper hanging on the pump box. The water, cool and clear, was the most delicious thing that they ever tasted, and the remembrance of that draught of plain well water will always linger with them. As they drank, their canine friend eyed them from behind the corner of the house, and though they did their best to show their gratitude, he mistrusted and would have none of them.

After thanking the good people of the house, they went on, and at last reached the landing. It took nearly all of their remaining strength to row out to the “Gazelle,” and though Frank plied them with questions showing the effects of his long night of worry, they could hardly answer him intelligently, until he had strengthened them with black coffee and some food.

As soon as the skipper and mate had recovered their strength, they weighed anchor and sailed away from the island that had so nearly been the scene of their death.

Down the coast they sped, nearer and nearer the long point that divides the Gulf of Mexico from the Atlantic Ocean. The boys grew more and more impatient as they drew gradually nearer to the old ocean. The stops were as brief as possible; they merely touched to get fresh water and buy fruit or necessary food. There were no towns of interest to visit—mere clusters of fishermen’s huts.

Cape Romano, that point around which the waters of the Gulf continually froth and rage, was passed in safety, though the “Gazelle” tossed about roughly, and had, for a time, a tussle with the seas that tested her thoroughly.

Now began the trip through that maze of intricate channels of the Ten Thousand Islands, where many a good vessel has been lost—a place that was once the refuge of pirates, and even now retains the flavor of bloodthirsty tales. On one of these islands, or keys, the boys landed in search of fresh water. After walking a while, they came to a snug little cove or inlet, and were surprised to find a graceful sloop anchored cosily therein. From the cove led a well-beaten path, which, Frank and Kenneth following, came to a picturesque cottage thatched with palm branches. It was weatherbeaten, but looked comfortable. A young woman was standing in front, and in answer to their polite questions about water and the easiest of the many puzzling channels to follow, suggested that they ask “John,” and pointed with her thumb over her shoulder to the open door of the hut. Needing no second invitation, their curiosity fully aroused by the strange remoteness of this little home, they stepped on, and looked through the door into the larger of the two rooms the house contained. There, prone on the floor, stretched on a gray rag carpet, lay an old man; his complexion was brown, dark, and rich in color as century-old mahogany; his thick, white hair—bushy and plentiful—framed a face seamed and lined, but keen and full of vigor. The old man stirred at the sound of the boys’ step, then rose and went toward them inquiringly.

“The young lady said that you knew all about the coast, and could tell us the best way to get through the islands,” Kenneth began.

“Yes, I do know something of the coast,” and the old man smiled, as if at a joke too private to be told.

He asked the boys about themselves, and was much interested in their tale of pluck and their plans for the balance of the cruise. After they had finished their recital, he, in his turn, began an account of the channels, harbors, shoals, tides, and currents, that showed an acquaintance with the coast along the Gulf that was indeed marvellous. His voice was clear and full, and he gestured freely as he talked with the animation of a young man.

JOHN GOMEZ’S CABIN.
“A ... COTTAGE THATCHED WITH PALM BRANCHES.”

Both of the boys instinctively understood that there was something extraordinary about him, although they could not tell what it was.

He expressed a wish to see the boat that had been built so far away from the warm clime she was now visiting, so the youngsters filled their breaker at a spring near the cottage and led the way to the beach where they had landed. It was quite a long walk, but the old native tramped it as sturdily as the young men themselves. The “Gazelle” lay swinging idly at her anchor; a sight to make her owner’s heart glad.

The old man seemed much pleased with the yacht, and complimented her builder. Then he talked about boats in general, displaying such a knowledge of vessels of all kinds that Kenneth’s curiosity finally overcame him, and he asked if their host would not tell him some incident that they might put down in the log in remembrance of the visit—hoping that he might in some way reveal his history.

“Well, boys, how old should you say I am?” He looked quizzically from one to the other. Frank guessed eighty; Kenneth eighty-five, and he was afraid he was stretching it.

“Well,” said he, “my name is John Gomez, and if I live till Christmas—as I hope I shall—I’ll be a hundred and twenty-three.”

Frank and Kenneth could do nothing but gaze at him open-mouthed. “Holy smoke!” at last ejaculated Frank.

“Now, there’s something to put down in your log,” said John Gomez. “Good luck to you.”

He shook the boys’ hands with a hearty grip, and went off.

“Well,” said Frank, as he and Kenneth got aboard “His Nibs” and pushed off, “a hundred and twenty-three, think of it! I bet that old chap has a history.”

And he had.


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