At the End of the Reef

The light-keeper at Fowey Rocks had been given a new assistant, and
the new man was Bahama Bill, the giant wrecker and mate of a sponging
sloop. He was a negro Conch, so-called on account of the diet upon
which many of the native Bankers were supposed to live, the Conch
proving an easy and nourishing meal for the lazy and incompetent
reefer. But the name soon applied to all alike, and the Conch, instead
of becoming a word of opprobrium, stood for all men who made the Reef
or Great Bahama Bank their home.

William Haskins, otherwise known as Bahama Bill, was a Fortune
Islander, and his acceptance of the keeper’s position was but
temporary, taking the place of the assistant who was absent on his
quarterly leave. The head keeper, an old man, seldom left the light.

It was summer-time and the air was warm with the tropical heat of
the coast. The distance from the land kept the lighthouse cooler
than ordinary, but the hot Stream flowing past at a temperature
of eighty-three degrees gave no cooling effect. The days of the
assistant’s absence dragged slowly along, the old keeper tending the
light with his usual care. Then came a season of frightful humidity and
glaring sunshine, lasting many days, the mercury standing always at
ninety-five or more.

Bahama Bill spent the warm weather loafing about the town of Miami,
and as he was in no hurry to go back to the light, he took pains to
spend what money he possessed in whatever finery he thought befitted
his magnificent personal appearance best. Standing several inches over
six feet and being enormously solid and broad in proportion, he was an
object of admiration to the many black men who loafed along the Florida
shore. With the Seminoles he had nothing whatever to do, for these
Indians showed their distaste for negroes so plainly that it was with
difficulty trouble was avoided whenever the men of the Glades came to
town to trade their deerskins for ammunition. Bahama Bill stuck to his
class until it was past the time for him to return to the light, and
then started off, rigged out clean and shipshape in a small boat.

The old keeper of the Fowey Rocks lighthouse came out upon the gallery
to take the morning air. The sun was shining and the warm wind from the
Gulf Stream blew lazily through the doorway into the lantern-room. The
blue sea sparkled in the sunshine, and the long, easy roll of the swell
told of calm weather offshore. It was a perfect day, a day of peace and
quiet, upon the end of the great Florida Reef, which stretched away
for miles to the southward. Eastward nothing rose above the blue rim
which compassed all. To the northward the low line of hummocks showed
where Virginia Key and Key Biscayne rose above the water some ten miles
distant. To the westward the little lump of Soldier Key showed where
there might be a solitary human within a dozen miles. And all about
the blue sea sparkled in the bright light, taking on the varicoloured
hues found above the coral banks. Near the lighthouse, in three feet of
water, the coral showed distinctly even from the height of the tower.
Old man Enau gazed down at it, watching the bright green tinge melt
to deeper colour until, in three fathoms, the pure limpid blue of the
great stream flowed past uncoloured and undefiled. Fish were swimming
around the iron piles of the lighthouse; great big bonito, sinuous
barracuda, and now and then a shark would drift up to the iron pillars
and bask a moment in the shade of the tall structure which rose above
the coral bank to the height of a hundred feet and more, standing like
a huge long-legged spider upon its iron feet in the shallow water.

The quiet of the morning was oppressive to the keeper. Not a sound rose
from the reef save the low roll of the sea as it broke upon the edge of
the bank, not the cry of a single sea-bird to break the great stillness
and beautiful quiet of the day. The old man had been in the light for
three years. To him the world was that eternal sea bounded by the blue
rim and spotted in one or two places by the distant Keys. Whatever he
had seen of human life he left behind him when he took the position
as keeper. He had tried to forget. And now, as the years passed, his
memories were fading. The human struggle was over. The thought of what
he had seen and done was dimmed in the glare of the tropic sunshine,
and the shadow of his past had faded to nothing.

He had a fine old face. Rugged and burned from the weather on the
reef, his features still bore traces of culture. His nose was straight
and small, and his eyes were bright and blue, the deep blue of the
surrounding sea, which had kept him apart from his fellow men so long.

He leaned out over the rail and looked down. The heat and stillness
oppressed him, and as he gazed below at the white and green formations
he seemed to see again the inside of a court-room. The quiet and heat
were there, and the stillness was strained and intense, as he waited
for the word which meant his ruin. The faces of the jury who were
trying a murder case were before him, the man on the right looking hard
at him, and the foreman bowing his head gravely in that moment of utter
silence before he spoke the words which meant his end. It had been a
peculiar case, a case of great brutality and cruelty, apparently, from
the evidence produced. He, the master of a large square-rigged ship,
had been accused of a horrible crime, and the evidence of two witnesses
was there to prove it. He remembered the man whose evidence was the
strongest against him, a sailor whom he had befriended, and he could
see the look of pious resignation upon the fellow’s face. He also
remembered the furtive gleam that came now and again from the corner of
his eye as he sat near the witness-box and waited his turn to tell of
the horror.

Why was it? Was it the heat that brought back those scenes which
were fading, or was it the ominous silence of the torrid sunshine
upon the reef? The lines in the face of the old man grew rigid and
drawn, and he gazed stolidly into the blue water until the coral banks
took on new shapes. He saw a ship’s deck with the long plank strakes
stretching hundreds of feet fore and aft; the low white deck-house,
with the galley smoke-pipe stretching across it and the boats upon the
strong-backs or booms atop of it; the solid coamings of the hatchways,
with the battened hatches as strong as the sides of the vessel itself;
the high topgallant-rail which shut off the view to windward, and the
rows of belaying-pins stuck beneath with the neatly coiled braces upon
them; the high head of the topgallant-forecastle and the long jibboom
pointing out over the sea; and, above all, the long, tapering spars
lifting upward into the blue above, with the white canvas bellying in
the breath of the trade-wind. It was all plain before him again. Then
it changed–the pampero off the River Plate, the great hurricane sea
which swept the ship and smashed her up, leaving her a wreck, leaking
and settling, six hundred miles from shore. The fracas was there before
him–the men struggling, trying to save her, until, tired out with
exertion and suffering, the man with the furtive eyes had refused to do
duty and managed to get the rest to back him.

Then the days following, full of desperate endeavour: the fellow who
refused duty shirking and endangering the lives of all; the measures
he took, hanging the man by the hands and flogging him until he fell
in a faint; how he staggered to his feet and looked at the master–one
long look full of a purpose implacable, unrelenting, and then the quiet
manner he had when he obeyed. He had picked the fellow up starving upon
the streets, an outcast from some country and of a social sphere above
his own, taking him aboard his ship and providing food and clothing
with a fair wage–and this had been the outcome.

They had left her in the one remaining boat two days after, crowding
the craft almost to the gunwales; but the sea was now smooth and the
wind gone, leaving a quiet strangely like that of the beautiful day
about him. The row westward over that oily, heaving ocean, day after
day, day after day!

One by one they had dropped off, overboard, to float astern, and all
the time the _rip_, _rip_, _rip_ of a triangular fin above a great
shadow below the surface.

He had done what he could, taking no more of the meagre food than the
rest. Then the last days–four of them left, the men who witnessed
against him and another, a stout fellow who had kept up better than the
rest. How he had discovered that the fellow had stolen the scant store
of food steadily and divided it with the man he had flogged. How, when
they had taken all, they had set upon him, and he had killed the stout
thief and wounded the other. There was nothing left to eat,–absolutely
nothing for five days,–and they had–ugh!–it was too horrible;
and upon the seventh day they had been picked up with the evidences
of the horror too plain for their rescuers to make a mistake in the
matter, even without the two men, who openly accused him of the whole
wrong–accused him of not only killing his men, but–ugh!

The trial had lasted a week and the evidence was most horrible. The
jury had convicted him upon that of the fellow who sat there with a
pious look and furtive glance; the other fellow had merely corroborated
his story, and, as it was two against him, his own tale was not
believed. He had received a life sentence for the crime, for he had
admitted killing the stout man who had stolen the last of the food.
He explained that it was his duty as captain to protect his life from
their combined assault. The jury had not believed him, for the man
who was against him was ready to show the falsity of his tale; he had
been sentenced for life. He had served seven years and had escaped by
cutting the bars of his cell and gaining a vessel which was wrecked on
the coast of Africa letting him get ashore unmolested. After drifting
about for a time he had come back to America and taken the position as
keeper in the tower, where his past was not open to inspection, for no
one knew him or whence he came.

The sunshine was as quiet as before, but the blue Gulf Stream showed a
darkening far away on the horizon, where a breeze ruffled the surface.
He turned and gazed over the sea toward Florida, and a tiny black speck
showed upon the waters of the reef. It looked like a small boat coming
out through the Hawk’s Channel, and he looked at it steadily for a
long time, trying to see if it might be Haskins, the assistant keeper,
returning.

The sunshine was very hot on this side of the tower, and it dazzled him
for a little while as he gazed over the sparkling sea. The speck drew
nearer, and he saw that it was a boat. It came very slowly, sailing
with the light air, the bit of white canvas looking no larger than a
handkerchief in the distance. Soon the figure of a man could be seen
lying easily in the stern-sheets of the craft, and the old keeper saw
that the man’s legs were bare and brown. Then the tiny shallop took
more definite form and showed to be a canoe, its occupant an Indian
from the Everglades, coming out to fish upon the reef.

Indians seldom came so far away from land, and as the craft drew nearer
and nearer Enau watched it carefully. The Seminoles were friendly.
They were an unconquered tribe of Indians who had managed to evade all
efforts made by the United States to subdue them. They had retired
into the fastnesses of the great swamps, where no white soldier could
pursue with any hope to capture, and after years of peace had come
to the coast again with the understanding that they should not be
molested. The old man had heard of them from Haskins, the assistant,
and he had once or twice seen canoes skirting the edge of the great
bay in the distance, but he had never seen an Indian close enough to
recognize him. The canoe had now come within half a mile of the tower,
and was still heading straight for it.

The breeze died away again and the sun shone straight down with an
intense heat. The tower cast no shadow either to east or west, and
the ship’s clock in the kitchen struck off eight bells. Enau mopped
his streaming forehead and was about to turn into the galley to get
a drink of water. The heat made him reel with dizziness, but the man
in the boat made a movement, and he held his gaze fixed upon him.
The canoe was coming close to the tower, and it was evident that the
Indian would land there if the keeper allowed him. There was no way of
getting up to the light except by way of the long iron ladder which
reached from the gallery to the sea, a hundred feet below. It was an
easy path to dispute with any number of men, especially as they must
come through the heavy trap-door in the gallery at the top. There was
no way of getting up over the outside, unless one could climb the
long, smooth iron rods for a great distance and then reach out under
the sill to get a hand-grip upon the edge of the floor and swing out
over the gulf below. It would be a mere finger-grip at most, and a
tap upon the bare knuckles would send the fellow to his death below. A
good sailor might climb the smooth iron rods with great difficulty, but
no one could climb up a hundred feet and swing out on that finger-tip
hold with the hope of climbing to the rail above. The trap-door worked
with a five-hundred pound weight, and if any one tried to come up the
thin iron ladder the keeper could simply lower the door and the stout
three-inch planks would drop easily into place at will. Enau studied
it all out while he gazed below, and it amused him to think what a
surprised Indian it would be when he climbed up there to find the door
drop fast in his face. No; the keeper was as much his own master in
regard to human visitors as though he were a resident of some other
planet. A thousand men could not approach him if he did not wish it. He
could be all alone for an indefinite time, for he had provisions for
half a year and water enough for a lifetime.

While he gazed at the approaching boat the man in her looked up. It
was but a glance, a mere look at the head upon the rail above. Enau
gasped. That one glance upward was enough for him. The fellow was not
an Indian, after all. The sun-tanned face, burned to a dark mahogany
colour, belonged to one he had not forgotten. That glance, furtive,
half-shrinking, animal-like, without the movement of a single feature,
belonged to–yes, there was no mistake. It was Robledo, the sailor who
had witnessed against him, the survivor of the horror, the man who had
compassed his ruin.

Enau drew his breath quickly and stood up straight. The place seemed to
swing about in the sunshine, the tower to rock like a ship in a seaway.
Then he peered over again just as the craft came alongside one of the
iron pillars. He did not show his face,–just his eyes,–for fear the
fellow might recognize him and not come up the ladder. He would have
the trap-door ready for him, for it would never do to let that human
devil know he was upon the light. Yes; perhaps he would let him come
up, inside the gallery, but never go back. The sea would tell no tales.
There would be no marks of a struggle, no evidence of a fight–a quick
crack upon the head, and over the side, down a hundred feet to the
waters of the reef, where the sharks lay waiting. That would be all.
He could do it easily. But, then, the fellow might be missed, after
all. Some one might know he had gone out to the light, and then there
would be the investigation. That was what he did not want. There must
be no inquiries, no questions asked him about his past. He was an old
man now, and the memory of his terrible wrongs was fading. Let them die
out. He would let the enemy go as he came. The fellow could not know
he was in the tower, and there was no possibility of his recognizing
him, as he had not shown his whole face over the rail. Even if he had,
the hair and the beard of three years’ growth would hide anything of
Captain William Jacobs that still existed in him. No; he would let no
one come up that ladder. He would live the rest of his life in peace
and quiet. He loved the bright sunshine and the beautiful sea, and he
could be satisfied where he was. His wife and daughter he had long
given up. They had bade him farewell at the end of that trial, holding
away from him, yet with tears streaming down their faces in the agony
and horror of it all. He must be alone. There must be no one to tell
him about them.

He looked down again, and saw the man below drawing on his trousers
preparatory to climbing the ladder. Enau could see into the bottom of
the boat beneath, and he noticed a harpoon used for spearing crawfish.
Would the fellow take it with him? If so, it would be well not to let
him come too near, for it could be thrown and might be dangerous. The
man gave no hail, but turned his smooth-shaved face upward and began
to mount the ladder, Enau went to the trap-door and loosed the weight
softly. It creaked upon its hinges and settled slowly down until only
a crack remained. Here he stopped it, with the bolts in readiness to
shoot if necessary. He would watch the fellow and see if he showed
signs of recognition. Ten years was a long time; the end of the Florida
Reef was many thousand miles from where he had last seen him.

The man climbed slowly up the iron ladder, stopping now and then to
look seaward. The current had swept his canoe to the northward of the
lighthouse, where it trailed at the end of a long line. There was
now nothing under him but the blue water. When he reached the first
platform he climbed on to it and rested. It was very hot, and the
climb made his mahogany-coloured face darker than before. His hair was
freshly parted, and looked as though it had been oiled or moistened.
His coat he had left in his boat below, and his shirt was open at the
neck, showing the strong, corded muscles of his throat and chest. His
hands were brown and powerful, and the keeper noticed how his fingers
closed with a light but certain grip upon the irons of the ladder.

In a moment he came on again, and when within a few feet of the door
he looked upward and hailed. At that instant the old man closed the
door and shot the bolts. He was now cut off as completely as though he
had gone to the moon. The heat and excitement made his head whirl. He
staggered away from the closed door and went back to the gallery. The
sunshine danced upon the sea and all was quiet. Then he peered over the
rail. A string of muttered curses floated up to him and a drunken voice
called him many foul names, but he only smiled and stood gazing out to
sea. He could not see the man below now, for the fellow was too high up
under the platform, and he made his way to the kitchen and from there
higher up into the lantern, where the man’s voice could not be heard
distinctly.

Hours passed, and the sunshine began to slant sharply. The tower cast
a long shadow to the eastward, but the canoe was still swinging to her
painter, and the voice of the fellow below was still heard calling
forth curses upon him. The keeper was evidently not recognized, for
he heard the name “Enau” repeated over and over again, and this was
his name as light-keeper–Robert Enau, head keeper of the Fowey Rocks
lighthouse. If the fellow had recognized him he would have called him
Jacobs, and then he would have tried to kill him. It grew dark, but he
forgot to light his lantern, his whole mind taken with the one thought
of how to get rid of his visitor. If the lantern was not lighted, the
fellow might think that there was no one in the tower, after all, and
would go away. The idea flashed through his brain for an instant, and
then he centred his thoughts again on the fellow below and forgot the
darkness and quiet of the tropic night. Suddenly he thought of the
fellow’s boat. If he could endanger it, the man might leave. He seized
a heavy piece of iron and dropped it at the dark shadow floating at
the end of the line. A dull crash told of the accuracy of his aim.
Then the shadow faded out, and he knew the boat had sunk. There was no
sound from the man upon the ladder below. Evidently he had gone down
to the first landing and gone to sleep or was waiting, not knowing
the damage done his craft. He could now neither go away nor come up,
and the idea worried the keeper greatly. He was very dizzy with the
heat and excitement, and his thoughts went again and again over the
scenes of that last voyage and the trial following. In the gray of
the early morning he was still sitting in the lantern, gazing out to
sea, waiting for the sun to rise and show him his enemy below. The day
dawned beautiful and clear, and the quiet heat continued. In a little
while a noise upon the ladder attracted the old man’s attention. He
listened. What was the fellow saying?

“For God’s sake let me up!”

Not he. No! Had the fellow shown him any mercy when he was at the end
of his liberty? Why should he show him any now? All he wanted was for
him to go away and let him be. He did not want to see the man. Go away!

The pitiless sunshine streamed through the iron piling and upon the
man. His boat was gone. It had sunk during the night from the weight
Enau had thrown into it, and the current had torn it loose. There was
no way for the man to get off the light without swimming. He must stay
or die. He might cling for a long time to the iron ladder and rest
upon the landing, but he could not swim ten miles in that current with
sharks abounding.

The day passed slowly, and the man upon the ladder raved and swore,
begged and cajoled, but Enau was silent and implacable. He went back
into the lantern, taking some bread with him. He was not hungry, but
the heat made his head swim, and he must eat something. The day drew to
a close and silence reigned below. The man had given up talking. Enau
lay prone upon his stomach and peeped over the edge of the platform.
He could see the man crouching upon the landing, lashed fast, to keep
from falling, by a line made of his clothes. Darkness came and the heat
abated a little, but no wind ruffled the surface of the Gulf Stream.

With a heavy bar in his hand the keeper sat and waited for any signs
of fingers showing upon the edge of the platform. He would not let
the fellow up–no, not for anything. If he died there, it was not his
fault. He did not want him to come out to the light. He would not have
him know that he, Captain Jacobs, was keeper.

The lantern remained unlighted. Now Enau was afraid to leave the
platform an instant, for fear the fellow, desperate from his position,
would climb over and kill him. He sat there during the hours of
darkness and waited.

About three in the morning Enau saw two eyes staring at him. They
were far away in the Hawk’s Channel, but as the moments flew by they
drew nearer. Soon a great shadow loomed up through the night, coming
straight for the lighthouse. Then there was a sudden crash close
aboard, the rattle and banging of ship’s gear, followed by hoarse cries
and curses. Enau went inside to the trap-door in the gallery, and sat
there watching the bolts until daylight.

In the early morning there was a great noise below. Men shouted and
called him by name, but he refused to answer. He peered over the edge
of the platform and he no sooner had done so than a perfect storm of
voices greeted him. Two ship’s boats were tied to the piling of the
tower, and many men were crowding up the ladder. More were upon the
deck of the vessel, which had rammed her nose high and dry upon the
reef close to the light. They were coming to take possession of the
tower by force, and he saw that he must now be interviewed, perhaps
taken away bodily, for the fellow on the ladder had joined the rest,
and they were calling to him to open that door.

The day passed without a disturbance. The men of the four-masted
schooner upon the reef spent their time rigging gear to heave the
vessel off, and the man had joined them. At dark Enau, seeing that no
one was upon the ironwork, lighted the lantern and then came back to
his post at the trap-door, holding his club in readiness to prevent any
trespassing. He sat there hour after hour, but there was no sign of an
attack from below.

About midnight there was a slight noise upon the platform of the
gallery near the rail. The old man noticed it, but waited. Then some
one rapped sharply upon the door at his feet, and he stood ready for
the attack. Then all was quiet as before.

The heat was intense inside the gallery, and Enau mopped his forehead
again and again. The whole lighthouse seemed to stagger, and the room
went round and round. He was dizzy and failed to see the fingers which
grasped the edge of the outside platform, or the form that swung out
over the gulf below. A man drew himself up until his head was level
with the floor. Then he put one foot up on the landing. He could not
get back. It was a sheer hundred feet and over to the sea below, and
the water was only three or four feet deep over the coral. He must gain
the platform or go down to his death. Gradually he drew his weight upon
the landing, clutching the rail with powerful fingers. Then he quickly
stood upright and sprang over. He was in the light.

Enau saw him instantly and sprang at him. It was the same hated
face, the furtive eyes he had reason to hate with all his soul. They
clinched, and then began a struggle for life. And while they struggled
the old man’s mind could no longer hold his pent-up despair. He called
out upon the scoundrel who had ruined him:

“You villain! you have pursued me for revenge–I’ll give you all you
want,” he cried. “I know you; don’t think I’ll let you go.” And,
snarling like a wild beast, he strove with enormous power to crush the
other against the rail, and so over into the sea. But the younger man
was powerful. His strong fingers clutched at the old keeper’s throat
and closed upon it.

“I know you–I know you–I know your look–you pious-faced scoundrel!”
gasped the old man. Then they fought on in silence. Suddenly those
below heard a heavy fall. There was a moment’s pause.

The room seemed to reel about the old keeper. He struggled wildly in
that frightful grip. His breath came in bits of gasps and finally
stopped under the awful pressure of those fingers. The scenes of his
earlier life flitted through his mind. He saw the life-boat again
riding the oily sea in the South Atlantic; the starving men, their
strained faces pinched and lined, their eager eyes staring about the
eternal horizon for a sight of a sail; the last few days and the
last survivors, the man with that look he would never forget–stars
shot through his brain and fire flared before his vision. Then came
blackness–a blank.

Those below, hearing the sounds of struggle dying away, called loudly
to be let in. The man released his hold of the keeper’s throat and
shot back the bolts in the trap-door, letting a crowd of seamen come
streaming into the light.

“Get some water, quick!” called Haskins, standing back and panting
after the struggle. He was nearly exhausted, but still kept his gaze
fixed upon the fallen old man.

“It’s a touch of the sun,” said the captain of the wrecked vessel,
bending over the old keeper. “We must get him cooled off and ice to his
head. Quick, John! jump aboard and tell the doctor to get a lump of ice
and bring it here–git!”

“It’s pretty bad; I’ve shuah been hanging on to the irons for two days,
and you lose your ship, on account of a poor devil giving way under
that sun; but it can’t be helped. No, suh, it can’t be helped,” said
Bahama Bill.

“If you hadn’t shaved, fixed up and changed yourself so, and had come
back in your own boat, he might have recognized you in time,” said the
captain; “but of course you didn’t know.”

“I think I done all I could sah,” said Bill, thinking of his climb over
that outer rail.

“Yes, yes; I don’t mean to find fault,” said the captain; “but I lose
my ship by it.”

You may also like