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CHAPTER XII FIGHTING A MAN-EATING SHARK
It was some time before the boys heard about old John Gomez; but the tales that were current from Mobile to Key West would fill a book. According to one story, he was the only surviving member of a pirate crew—one of the many that formerly cruised about in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. The crew of this ship had a disagreement about the division of the spoils, and a great fight followed. All but Gomez were slain, and though he was badly wounded, he hid the great treasure which was in his hands, and so carefully that no one had ever been able to learn its whereabouts. The old man had never alluded to the subject; and it was feared that his secret might die with him. Some said that the young woman the boys saw with the old man was a relative, others declared that she was merely a guard stationed to secure the secret should the centenarian by any chance let it drop unawares. Gomez’s general appearance did not a little to give credence to these stories; his looks were certainly of the piratical order—a lean, sallow face, keen, piercing black eyes, gold rings in his ears, and a watchfulness that never wearied, were characteristics which he had in common with light-fingered gentlemen of seafaring tastes.

Over a year later, the boys read a newspaper clipping describing his death. He was drowned while sailing alone in his sloop on the open Gulf. But they never heard that any of the treasure was ever found.

For several days the voyagers travelled among the Ten Thousand Islands, winding in and out through the labyrinthine channels. It was a journey full of incident. Islands of every size and shape—green islands and islands bare of verdure—crowded the sea.

A whole week passed, and the boys did not see the least sign of a white man. Every vessel of sufficient size stood out into the Gulf to avoid the winding passages. They ran across several Seminole Indians, tall, splendid fellows, who considered the coils of bright-colored cloth on their heads sufficient covering for the whole body.

At last they sighted Cape Sable, and they knew that with a favorable wind the “Gazelle” would soon be ploughing the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Off Cape Sable the “Gazelle” ran into a fleet of fishing boats, and for an hour the boys and the men of the fishing boats swapped yarns; then they busied themselves laying in a stock of cocoanuts against future need.

It was a straight run from Cape Sable to Grassy Key, one of the long chain of islands which drip off the end of the Florida peninsula. At last, only the narrow island lay between the “Gazelle” and the Atlantic Ocean. The great body of salt water Kenneth and his crew had so perseveringly fought to gain was almost in sight, and the deeper note of its thundering surf could at times be plainly heard. What might befall them on the greater tide they knew not, but with undaunted courage all were impatient to venture, and to learn.

The “Gazelle” reached her secure anchorage just as the storm, which had been threatening several days, broke with terrible fury. Sheltered as they were, the joy of the boys at reaching the last obstacle to their way to the Atlantic, gave place to awe as they heard the roar of the wind and felt the shock of the beating surf on the coral shores outside. For three days a heavy wind prevailed—too strong to allow of the “Gazelle” venturing out. In fact, the seas had been swept free of all craft as if by a gigantic broom. Then the boys were forced to live on an almost purely vegetable diet of cocoanuts and oatmeal—a liberal supply of weevils in the last constituting the only foreign element in the otherwise strictly vegetable nature of the food. At the end of the three days, the wind subsided enough to allow the yacht to crawl out of her hole, and with wings spread wide, she entered the dangerous passage that led to the almost limitless waste of waters of the grand old ocean.

It was a proud moment for Kenneth when his yacht sailed out on the broad Atlantic—pride in his boat, pride in the crew, and a pardonable satisfaction with his own good work.

“All hail to Old Ocean!” shouted the crew as the “Gazelle,” with a shake that was like the toss of the head, bounded into the embrace of the Atlantic’s long billows.

“Well, we did it!” cried the mate exultingly. “Sailed to the ocean.”

“And we will sail back, too,” added Frank.

“But we have a trick or two to turn yet.” Kenneth foresaw experiences before them during the long coast-wise trip.

The voyage up the Hawk Channel to Miami, on Biscayne Bay, seemed long only because of their short supply of food; and when they anchored off that southernmost town on the mainland of Florida, they were ready to tackle anything in the shape of eatables except oatmeal and cocoanuts.

For many, many days the boys had not been able to send word to their people in far off Michigan; nor had they heard from home. At Miami a big batch of mail awaited them; and they at once satisfied a hunger for home news and civilized food. Day by day the boys had added to their letters, until Uncle Sam received almost as much mail matter as he had brought.

For two days the boys enjoyed the comfort of a safe anchorage in a port, and all hands got a good rest, many good feeds, and a good hair-cut apiece. When their unkempt shaggy locks were shorn, the places protected from the sun showed white in contrast to their tanned skins.

“Arthur, you look like Barnum’s piebald boy,” said Frank, pointing a derisive finger at him.

“Well, you look as if you needed a good scrub. You started all right, apparently, but you must have got tired.”

“Every man his own hair brush,” said Ransom, running his fingers appreciatively through his stiff, closely cropped hair. “If I could only reach my feet with my head I would always have a shine.”

“That’s all right; you can reach mine,” and Arthur put up his foot to prove it.

The fame of the young sailors and their staunch craft had preceded them, so they made many friends in the far Southern town, and spent the days very pleasantly. The place was a great shipping point for pineapples—crates of the spiky fruit being shipped by the thousands to Northern cities; and now, for once in their lives, the boys had their fill of them—great, juicy, luscious things ripened in their own warm, native sun.

In spite of all these enticements, Kenneth and his crew were eager to begin their long cruise up the coast, and in spite, also, of many invitations to stay, they weighed anchor and got under way the second day after they had entered the famous harbor. The bay, though large, was full of bars, and these and great masses of seaweed made it difficult to keep to the deep water.

A fine breeze was blowing, and the “Gazelle,” her booms well to port, sailed off handsomely. Her crew, rested, well fed, and at peace with all, were in high spirits, and proud of the fine appearance their yacht made. Kenneth at the stick, Frank tending sheets, Arthur below making all snug for the coming tussle with old ocean—all were in high feather. The “Gazelle” was sailing her best, skimming over the water at good speed, like a graceful gull, when suddenly she struck bottom, and stopped with a jar. There she stuck, all sail spread and every stitch drawing, but as hard on the bar as though she had been rooted to it. This was too common an experience to give the boys any uneasiness, but the delay was vexatious, and they tried every means that experience suggested to shove her into deep water. The tide was falling, and they soon saw that there was nothing to do but wait until it changed to flood, and released them. A long day of waiting was before them, and since with the falling water the yacht careened more and more, there was no comfort in staying aboard of her.

“What’s the matter with a swim?” Frank suggested.

“I’ll beat you in,” Kenneth responded.

In a trice, all three were overboard.

Farther on the bar was entirely bare, and a smooth, hard sand beach was left. One side sloped suddenly into deep water, and made a splendid diving place.

For an hour, the three swam in the warm salt sea, and then Ken and Arthur, growing a little weary of the sport, went on shore and lay basking on the beach. Frank, however, not satisfied, continued to float about.

Arthur and Kenneth talked comfortably for some time, then, becoming interested, fell into a lively discussion, which Arthur suddenly interrupted with, “Why, look at Frank. What in the world is the matter with him?”

“Oh, he’s just fooling. Splashing around for exercise,” Kenneth answered indifferently.

It was Frank’s peculiar motions that had attracted Arthur’s attention. He swam around in circles, then he stopped and splashed and made a great to-do. After that, he swam ahead for a little, only to stop and begin all over again his previous absurd tactics.

“He’s not fooling, Ken; something is the matter with him. Perhaps he has got cramp.” Just as Arthur stopped speaking, Frank seemed to regain his senses, and swam straight ahead in an entirely rational and dignified, if somewhat speedy, fashion.

Then, all of a sudden, he began to lash about with arms and legs anew. His feet and hands flew about like flails, and beat the water into white foamy lather. The two boys watched the antics of their friend with growing alarm. All at once they saw something that stirred them to instant action—the sharp triangle of a shark’s fin cutting through the water just behind Frank’s wildly waving arms.

The water was delightful, and Frank was not ready to come in when Arthur and Kenneth had had enough, so he dived over and swam out where the tide was several times over his head. Once he dived down and tried to reach bottom, and, as he rose toward the surface, his heart laboring for air, his face turned up, he saw a sinister shadow slowly swaying in the yellowish-green water almost above him. For an instant his heart sank, and cold chills ran up and down his spine. Never had he seen so large a shark, and for a moment he almost lost his presence of mind. Then, with a rush, his courage returned, and working arms and legs with frantic zeal, he shot up to the surface, and began splashing about to frighten the shark off—a plan that he had heard was sometimes successful. For a while the man-eater, surprised by these tactics, was held at bay, then, as Frank grew weary of his efforts and stopped to rest, the monster drew slowly nearer, and began to turn on his back to allow his long, under-cut jaw to work.

“He’ll have me in a minute,” thought Frank, and he began a new movement—turning suddenly, he swam straight for the shark, arms and legs going like miniature paddlewheels. It was a bold move, and life or death depended on its success or failure. Straight at the ugly, cruel head he swam, and directly away from shore. For a moment the shark lay still, its fins slowly waving, its evil eye watching its enemy; the curved line of the wicked mouth was partly visible. Nearer swam the boy. Nearer, till he could almost feel the current set in motion from those powerful fins. “I am a goner, sure,” thought Frank; but he determined to play the game out to the end, and kept on. Where were Kenneth and Arthur? Why did they not come to his rescue? he wondered, with a fearful dread at his heart.

Surely the shark was backing away from his onslaught. In spite of aching limbs and laboring lungs, the boy increased his efforts, and followed after the retreating tiger of the sea. He had been struggling for a long time, and his whole body ached with the exertion; he felt that he could not keep up much longer. Once, when his mouth was open, gasping for breath, he had splashed it full of water, and had had to stop a minute to cough it out. His heart was beating like a trip hammer, and each move seemed to take the last ounce of his strength.

The boy felt that he must give up, and wondered vaguely if a shark made quick work of a chap, and what his people at home would think of his end. Just as he seemed at the very last gasp, he felt the clutch of Kenneth’s hand on his hair, and the firm grip warm on his bare arm.

Then, half dead with fatigue and dazed with horror, the limp figure was dragged into the small boat by Kenneth’s sturdy arms.

Feebly, the exhausted boy was able to say: “You came in the nick of time, old man; I could not have lasted much longer.”

Kenneth answered not a word, but thought with a shudder of how close he had come to mistaking his friend’s frantic movements for playful antics. He reached out his hand and grasped the other’s fervently—it was a grip of thankfulness and affection on both sides.

Though Frank’s escape was narrow, the recovery of his high spirits was almost immediate, and soon the three friends were running races on the exposed sand bar as if one of them had never been in peril of his life, let alone a short hour before.

With the returning tide, the “Gazelle” straightened up, and after a few strong pulls on the anchor, which had been previously dropped for that purpose, she slipped off into deep water. It was still early afternoon, so with an eased sheet and light hearts the “Gazelle” and her gallant crew passed through the channel, out on the open ocean.

“Look at that old lighthouse; that’s a fine tower, but I don’t see any signs of a lantern.” Frank pointed to a tall shaft like a great chimney that rose from a cluster of palm trees. The yacht was slipping past the long point that forms one of the barriers between the ocean and Biscayne Bay.

“That must be the old Cape Florida light a fellow in Miami told me about,” said Ransom, gazing at the tall, graceful tower that pierced the blue.

“That tower has a story to tell. This place was full of Indians, I don’t know how long ago, and the lighthouse keeper and his assistant, a colored man, were in mortal terror of them. They thought, however, that they had a safe refuge, if worse came to worse, in the tower. One day a big bunch of the red savages came up and, after shooting a while at the men in the keeper’s house, set it afire. To save themselves from being roasted alive, the two men took refuge in the lighthouse itself and climbed up the long, winding flights of wooden stairs to the lantern room on top. For a time it seemed as if they were safe, but the ingenious devils soon hit upon the plan of setting fire to the stairs and platforms inside the tower. The door open at the bottom and top, the lighthouse became a veritable chimney, and the flames licked up the dry woodwork in a flash.”

“Gracious! What happened to the men?” Frank interrupted Kenneth to ask.

“When it got too hot inside,” Ransom continued, “and when the platform they were standing on inside began to smoke, they climbed out on that narrow little run-around outside; you can see it from here.”

The skipper pointed to the tower and the little balcony running round it near the top.

“Phew! That would be an unpleasant place to stay with a fire burning in the tower inside and a lot of savages looking for your gore hanging ’round waiting for you to drop off.”

“But they didn’t drop off,” Kenneth went on to say. “They stuck to the little balcony till the Indians got tired waiting and began shooting at them with their bows and arrows. The men lay flat on the boards, as close to the bricks as they could get, but before long the assistant got an arrow through his heart and the keeper himself was shot in the shoulder. The Indians, thinking that both were done for, went away, leaving the wounded man with the dead one, high up on a lonely tower, the only means of reaching the ground burned away, without food, and entirely without shelter.”

“Did he die up there?” both of the other boys inquired at once.

“Almost, but not quite. Some of the settlers near, fearing trouble, followed the Indians in force, and a daring chap climbed up the charred stumps of the supports inside the tower, and lowered the body of the negro and the almost lifeless keeper to the ground.”

“What a story!” Frank shuddered as he looked at the tall shaft.

“But it’s true. The place has never been used since. See, there’s no sign of life there.”

The boys watched the tower till it sank below the curve of the earth, and for a long time sat silent, thinking of the keeper’s awful plight.

Rounding Cape Florida, the yacht sailed north along the treacherous East Coast of Florida. With scarcely any harbor and a strong sea beating steadily on shore, the boys watched with dread for the “glistening calm,” when the wind dies out suddenly, leaving a heavy sea setting in to shore. But luck was with them, and three days after leaving Biscayne Bay they had reached St. Lucie’s inlet to Indian River, and were standing off and on before the thundering breakers that guarded the pass to the calm water beyond.

On the chart, laid out in beautiful lines, clear figures, and delicate shadings, the course through those raging billows was plain enough to the haven beyond; but the real look of the place was very different.

“Well, boys, shall we do it?” Kenneth’s mind was already made up, but he wanted the confirmation of his friends. “It’s win out or bust, you know.”

“The chart says that there’s water enough. I am willing to risk it.” Pluck was Frank’s long suit, that was sure.

“Water enough? I should say so.” Arthur gazed at the spouting breakers, which stormed the beach like ranks of white-plumed warriors. “I am game, if Ken says so.”

For answer, Kenneth shifted the helm and headed straight for the seething breakers.

Arthur went forward and clung to the rigging to watch for the channel marks, while Frank lay aft with the skipper to tend sheets and be handy for any emergency. The hatches were closed tight and all movable gear lashed down.

Like a war horse eager for the fray, the “Gazelle” dashed for the first line of tumbling watery breastworks. Rising like a gull on the uplift of the first wave, she topped it and swung down into its trough and then up the slope of the next. Straight as an arrow, steady and sure as the sweep of a true wind, the yacht slipped over the white crests of the great waves one after the other, on through the narrow, troubled waters of the inlet, to the calmer waters of Indian River.

“Say, that was just great,” was Frank’s honest compliment to the boat’s performance. “I’d like to do that again.” The faces of all three were damp from the salt spray and shining with exhilaration and enthusiasm.

As Kenneth was about to drop his anchor, his eye caught sight of a queer-looking craft that was gliding over the smooth water in the rapidly-deepening dusk.

“Let’s travel along with our friend over there,” he said, pointing to the strange vessel. “She may be able to give us some pointers about this creek.”

The “Gazelle” was the faster sailer, and had just about come abeam of the stranger, when they heard her anchor go overboard. The yawl’s mud-hook immediately followed suit. While Frank was getting the supper, the skipper and his mate rowed over to what proved to be a broad-beamed sharpie. After hailing, the boys were invited to come aboard by the one person visible. Climbing a ladder thrown over her square sides, the two found themselves in a very comfortable cabin lined with shelves, on which were ranged, in orderly rows, the stock of a well-appointed grocery store.

The skipper-proprietor was a jovial fellow, having the characteristics of both of his trades—the trader’s Yankee shrewdness and love of gossip, combined with the open, hearty, yarn-spinning qualities of the sailor. He gave Ransom and his friend many useful hints about navigating Indian River, with every shoal and indentation of which he was familiar, and ended by selling them quite a stock of provisions. “Combining business with pleasure,” he said, as he handed Arthur the packages—flour, salt, sugar, and coffee.

Next morning, the two boats travelled along in company for a time, then, as the sailor-grocery man stopped to solicit a customer ashore, the “Gazelle” sped on alone.

Sailing along the queer, elongated, inland bay-like river was not an unmixed pleasure. A paradise for fishermen it was; also the haunt of mosquitoes that were provided with bills long and strong enough to “pierce anything and clinch on the other side.” The crew was compelled to live in the smoke of burning, half-dried cocoanut husks at times; but when the captain could stand this no longer, he resorted to an invention of his own. Wrapping himself in a blanket up to his neck, Kenneth stuck his head into a large tin cracker box which he had pierced full of holes and draped with cheese cloth. Though it was like a continuous Turkish bath in the tropical weather, the skipper declared that it was better to steam than to be eaten alive.

To compel yachtsmen to make use of their services, the watermen were in the habit of destroying the channel marks, so our sailors spent much time sounding out the deep water—a task which the hot sun and the voracious mosquitoes made far from pleasant.

Mosquito Lagoon is reached from Indian River by what is called Haul Over Canal, once in good repair, but when the “Gazelle” nosed her way to it she found that it was half filled with sand, and too shallow to allow her to pass through.

It was a question whether they would retrace their steps or dredge a deeper channel through the sixty-foot-wide bar to the short cut.

The discovery of the old blade of a cultivator among the junk of the ballast helped the boys to decide in favor of dredging a channel. For two days they worked waist deep in the water, the hot sun beating on their backs and necks, the mosquitoes humming a merry tune in their ears, and the stinging “sea nettles” or jelly fish, irritating the skin of arms and legs. Added to these discomforts was the constant danger of being stung by the “stingaree,” whose slightest touch means a poisoned wound and sometimes fearful suffering and death.

But the “Haul Over” was completed at length, and the crew shouted themselves hoarse when the “Gazelle” floated in the deep water of Mosquito Lagoon.

Game of all sort abounded in the lagoon. The waters teemed with brilliantly hued fish. Herons and flamingoes were frequently seen stalking about at a distance in their ridiculous disjointedly dignified fashion, while pelicans, their huge pouches distended with fish, were everywhere.

After leaving New Smyrna, which claims to be the oldest town in the United States, and proudly shows an old mission to substantiate it, the yacht reached the outlet to the ocean. An ugly place, through which the water rushed in never-ceasing fury. Jagged rocks fretted the water into foam in every direction; and blocking the channel at one side, lay the boiler of a wrecked steamboat; beyond, the breakers roared as if hungry for their prey.

On the morning of the Fourth of July, the “Gazelle” slowly approached the inlet, while her crew prepared for the struggle. With everything snug, rigging as taut as the nerves of the skipper and his crew, the gallant little ship swept to the battle.


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