.....W.B. Thompson sits in a Boston rocker and builds a mound of bullets by the bed stand. It’s July. The air is hot and full of steam. Behind him, through the second story window of the keeper’s cottage, the sun sets red into the ocean. The mosquitoes are ravenous at dusk, so W.B. waits. Soon, he’ll climb the wooden stairs of the Cape Florida Light and put a match to seven of the seventeen lanterns inside the lens room. John Dubose, the keeper of the lighthouse, is away in Key West. W.B. is but the assistant. He stands and pulls a suspender over each shoulder. He crosses the room towards the dormer windows and looks at the island. He knows they’re out there. Forty miles since last detected.
..... W.B hears the thump of Carter’s footsteps approaching from the hall. Carter enters the room and sees the pile of buck W.B. has been preparing, sees a percussion rifle against the window, another two atop the bed.
..... “Isn’t gone be enough,” says Carter.
..... “I know,” replies W.B.
..... “Last of the sloops leaves in the morning. Considering being on it?”
..... “It isn’t my duty to leave on the sloop,” says W.B. “Isn’t your duty to be thinking about leaving either.” W.B. looks at Carter. Lopsided shoulders, one eye wild, sweat running off him in rivers. W.B. pities the Negro, looks away from him, looks around him. “You should leave,” says W.B. “Nobody will think less of you for it.”
..... “You’re saying I should run away? And how am I going to explain that?”
..... “I’ll say I ordered it.”
..... “And when you’re dead and buried? Think they’ll take me at my word? It ain’t gone work like that, W.B. We got to leave together. It’s the only way. I’m too damn old to be thrown in prison or to be catching beatings or, hell, whatever worse they come up with.” Carter leans into the doorframe and it rights his posture.
..... “I’m not leaving, “ says W.B. “But I’m not responsible for you either.” He walks towards Carter and places a pistol in his hand. “Leave, and make your own lot.”
..... Carter looks at the gun, and at W.B. “If I run and leave, you’re going to die, and Lord only knows what’ll happen to me. This world ain’t kind to runaways.”
..... “You’ll live, more and likely. No sense seeing it any other way.”
..... “And if I stay here, if I don’t run like you telling me to? We both die.”
..... “That’s about right.”
..... “Then why aren’t we leaving, W.B.? Makes no sense to me. It’s like you’re trying to catch hell.”
..... “I was trusted with the protection of this lighthouse, Carter, and that’s what I intend to do. Can’t explain it any more than that.”
..... Carter takes a look at W.B. At his guns, his bullets. “Like I said,” says Carter, “isn’t gone be enough.”
W.B. stands on the porch of the lighthouse keeper’s cottage and wonders what it is he’ll be remembered for. For the salvaging of wrecks? For laying claim to goods in the name of country? For tempering Indians and runaways into jurisdictions? What jurisdictions are there here? thinks W.B. Just one desperate island after another.
..... W.B. has heard his share of stories about the frontier, about the open, unfailing land, and in his heart he knows the truth. The men out west, beyond the Mississippi, they’ll be the ones credited with building this country, with the setting of track and trail. He knows it like he knows the sun will set, the mosquitoes will rise and when the Indians find their way to him, there won’t be much he can do about any of it. W.B. slings a rifle over his shoulder and heads into the jungle as the first shimmers of the moon glisten against the trees.
..... W.B. heaves himself over the giant husk of a dead oak. The smell of vegetation is dank and earthen. Every footfall crushes something. There are birds upon birds here. There are deer and bear and rattlesnake. The jungle throbs with bush crickets. A chorus of toad-frogs thump. Owls commiserate in the darkness. And the mosquitoes, an incessant, baleful noise. For a moment, W.B. does consider deserting his post, but between dying or pitiful shame, W.B. will take the one he can live with. He cuts north and west and hits the hard white sand at the ocean’s edge. He looks out towards the sea, dark and still. He looks to the moon. He looks to the lighthouse.
..... W.B. doubles back through the tangle and heads east towards a small inlet. The air hums with mosquitoes. The prop roots of the mangroves knuckle into the muck and the earth gives way beneath his boots. W.B. looks for signs of anyone but him. He continues through the bush towards the opposite shore, crosses the dunes and the sea oats and arrives at the windward side of the island. Two cows and a lone hog stand still along the beach. A breeze passes. W.B. follows the shore and comes to the door of the Cape Florida Light. It’s pinewood, heavy and broad, and opens with a gasp.
..... There are barrels of oil inside. Smoke pans, lanterns, a shovel and a pick, candles, a half dozen muskets. W.B. lights a lantern and trudges his way up the spiral stairs. He steps out on to the gallery and climbs the wrought iron ladder into the lens room. W.B. lays his rifle down beside a hundred gallon drum of whale oil. He uses a tin and refills the exhausted lanterns. Before leaving the tower, W.B. says a prayer, and closes the door behind him.
Morning. The slow, lazy fingers of the sun stretch across the island. W.B. passes the polluted cistern and enters the bathhouse with a wooden bucket full of salt water in each hand. He heats the water atop a small furnace and draws himself a bath, the iron tub just large enough for a lighthouse keeper’s assistant. He removes his clothes and settles into the water. Carter passes and W.B. tells him to enter.
..... “There’s a cartouche of bullets just inside the cottage,” says W.B. “Assure yourself of sufficient powder.”
..... “Talking like that’ll bring bad tidings.”
..... “What’s one more?” says W.B. He rests his head back, closes his eyes, lets the water soak him to the bone.
..... “One more is one more,” says Carter.
..... “You still thinking about leaving?” asks W.B.
..... “Still here, aren’t I?” says Carter.
..... “You should’nt’ve stayed, Carter. I said as much.” W.B. rights himself, sits up. The water from the tub spills out over the lip.
..... “Was hoping you’d come to your senses by morning.” Carter pauses. “Don’t reckon you have?” he asks.
..... “Have not,” says W.B.
..... Carter shakes his head, runs his fingers through his beard, pulls on his face. “If this were backward,” says Carter, “were it me had the chance to say if we stay or go, we’d be leaving, W.B. Don’t you doubt it. Not for a moment.”
..... “My apologies, Carter, but I’m not leaving. You got your way of seeing things, and I got mine.” W.B. lowers himself deeper into the filthy water. “ I got no wife. Got no children. Even if I wanted to leave, where exactly would I leave to?” says W.B.
..... “The rest of your life ain’t enough? What about the rest of mine? That do anything for you?”
..... “This is my charge, Carter. Kicking back against obligation never changed nothing. It’s your charge too, says government. You ain’t got to like it, but that’s the way it is. And if you don’t like it, well, you know what to do. You know where to catch the sloops.”
..... “Obligation? Charge?” says Carter. “You refusing to leave and keeping me bound to you, knowing what would happen if I try running off? This isn’t about duty, W.B. It’s about you not dying alone is what it is. So desperate to save your life, you’re willing to take mine to do it.”
..... “I said leave, and you didn’t.”
..... “Because we need to leave together, W.B.,” says Carter. “I’m trying to save our lives, yours and mines, and you too blind to see it,” Carter pauses. “If I stay, my blood’s gone be on your hands, W.B.”
..... “Doesn’t have to be,” says W.B.
..... “You think you gone to protect me, W.B.? You think you gone to protect me like I was one of your own? Like I was blood kin?”
..... “Carter,” says W.B., “we been kin the moment you set foot in this shit swamp. Who says a couple 'Noles gone change that?”
Inside the kitchen, W.B. and Carter share coffee beans from a plant Dubose finagled from a botanist on the mainland. Its beans are rare and the process arduous. The men eat pokeweed and collards. The hog they butcher and fry its liver in a pan of its own fat.The rest of the animal they salt and jar and bury in the cool sand on the shade-side of the cottage.
..... “Of Captain Dubose?” asks Carter.
..... “Nothing,” answers W.B.
..... With the Indians’ blood up, Dubose sailed to Key West for men and armaments. Been gone three days, intended back in another two. A solemn and severe man, Dubose. Tight hands and a temper. He was discovered to have been keeping a runaway in a house he built across the cut on the mainland. Settlers and cattlemen learned of it and soon officers in Jackson’s army were dispatched to retrieve the woman. The following day a ship arrived and bore with it a letter addressed to Dubose. Any further dereliction of duty would be regarded as treason, said the letter.
..... Dubose replied. He claimed the dangers of swamp sickness and of sand flies were less on the mainland, farming was better. He was relying upon himself to feed and strengthen his family. In an effort to assuage Dubose’s complaints, he was assigned the use of two men, W.B. Thompson and Aaron Carter. Dubose insisted that men, any men, were a poor substitute for soil that refused to take, and promptly moved his family south.
..... W.B. stretches at the table, holds his hat and fans the flies from his face. He watches Carter as he finishes his drink. “How old’re you, Carter?”
..... “Can’t tell really. All my life I been someone’s employ. You’re my fourth employ so, I suppose that makes me four.”
..... W.B. grunts. “If you’re four, I’m three and a half.”
..... “We’re nothing but babies,” says Carter.
..... “Poor, poor babies.”
..... “Is there any other kind?"
..... The two men laugh and belch and wipe sweat from their faces and groan.
..... “If we had left on the sloop,” asks W.B., “where’d you have gone to?”
..... “Antilles. Hispaniola. Anywhere. This place isn’t meant for me, W.B.” Carter shakes his head. “This war you fighting with the Indians?” says Carter. “I don’t want this land the way you all do.”
..... W.B. glances through the window of the kitchen and sees the branches of the trees lift against a sudden breeze.
..... “Might be a storm coming,” says W.B.
..... “Lots of things coming,” says Carter, “but a storm isn’t one.”
..... W.B. senses the mechanisms of his stomach churning. As he passes from the kitchen to the outhouse, W.B. doesn’t trust his eyes. Maybe it’s discomfort from the food but he sees the trees shift and move. The flowers and the fruits are of the wrong color. The edges of the jungle twitch. W.B. sees a pair of eyes staring back at him. His stomach empties. The sun magnifies. His actions, all movements around him, slow and thicken. Birds flutter into the sky. Indians.
..... W.B. calls for Carter and puffs of smoke and flame burst from the Indian’s armaments. A volley of rifle shots extend past W.B. Bullets whiz and whine by his ears. Carter breaks from the dwelling. He’s carrying W.B.’s rifle in one hand and a flintlock pistol in the other and running as best he can. Both men charge the lighthouse. W.B. shouts at Carter to hurry. For a moment, W.B. glimpses the swarming tide. They wear fringed longshirts, and carry pouches and bandoliers made from trade wool across their bodies. Others are shirtless. Their arms and chests are painted and they shine like oil in the sun. Carter slips inside the tower and W.B. seals the door as bullets buck at the entrance.
..... Carter’s eyes are wet with fear. He holds his gun with both hands.
..... W.B. points Carter towards the door. “Not one goddamned Indian makes it through this door, do you understand?”
..... Carter vomits and readies his pistol.
..... W.B. rushes towards the first open window, a musket slung over his shoulder. He hears the Indians’ war cries outside the lighthouse, more leaping from the jungle, surrounding the tower, growing in numbers. W.B. nears the window and takes aim. His hands are trembling. He fires and misses. The Indians hoot and holler and fire towards the window. Chunks of brick fall away and the chalk floats up into the air. W.B. looks over the ledge and counts eleven, maybe twelve Indians. One rushes towards the tower, brandishing an axe. W.B. steadies his rifle, fires, and the man falls backwards onto the sand. W.B. runs further up the stairs and at the east window sees a second body circling the lighthouse, counts another six. Another three lashing together pieces of trunk and fashioning a ladder. W.B. crams buck into the front of his musket, fires without aiming and continues higher. He shoves open the scuttle door and lifts himself inside the watch room. Errant bullets shatter the glass above him. He walks out to the platform and sees the full magnitude of what’s descending upon them. There are forty, at most, but W.B. imagines hundreds, thousands more. He imagines the states, the territories, crammed to capacity. He imagines not one parcel of land unspoiled by their terrible cries. He imagines the land before he arrived. It’s a wonder there is any country left at all, thinks W.B.
..... The hum of narrow misses startles W.B. He sees the dwelling house, reeling with flames, then watches as a small group pours a ring of oil around the base of the lighthouse, and ignites it. W.B. rushes down the stairs. He shouts Carter’s name over and over, a fear so wild he can almost stroke its fur. W.B. chokes his way towards the landing, the tower filling with the plumes of small fires. It’s difficult to see through the smoke. He finds Carter on all fours, coughing, gasping. W.B. reaches for the pit of Carter’s arm and Carter reaches up and snatches W.B. with wicked strength. This is not Carter.
..... The Indian leaps and lands on W.B. and pins him against the steps of the stairs. His face is fevered, his strength supreme. The flames crack like whips at the timber. He wraps his hands around W.B.’s neck and howls. Smudges of smoke and oil are streaked across his body. He tightens his grip. W.B anchors a foot beneath a step of the stairs for leverage, grips the man’s fingers and tries to pull his hand away and the man cracks W.B.’s nose with the front of his head. W.B. goes dark, his eyesight failing. He feels the flames surrounding him. The Indian’s face is little more than a blur to W.B. Yet still W.B. traces the contours of the man’s face, follows it to an open patch of neck, and jams his knife in to the hilt.
..... Breath balloons W.B.’s lungs as the man’s hands fall away. He removes the knife and corkscrews his way towards the topmost of the tower. The flames follow. The iron scuttle burns W.B.’s hands as he flips it open. Glass is everywhere. Spilled oil from the pocked barrels slicks the floor. He pulls open the door to the platform and crawls across. Below him, he hears the crackle of gunfire, the roar of flames, the terrible, terrible canting of the Seminole Indians. Carter is dead, the Light is burning, and there are more Indians on the Cape than W.B. ever imagined existing. He is panicked, but resolute. I will not die at their hands, thinks W.B. He envisions tossing himself into the sea, imagines placing the pistol against his own head. God damn me, thinks W.B. He opens the scuttle door and shoves a barrel of gunpowder down the flaming tower.
..... The barrel explodes, a vicious roar of fire and smoke, a tunnel of flames pointing straight to hell. But the tower does not collapse. W.B.’s life is not whisked away. The force of the blast blows the glass clean from the tower’s top and W.B. is tossed against the wall of the watch room. He falls in a crumble. He is bleeding, but cannot tell from where. He’s disoriented, his hearing sucked away by the sound of the explosion. The wood stairs burn and collapse and the flames dampen and feed upon themselves, a bonfire of timber and oil and gunpowder.
But W.B. is alive. Concussed, deaf, and stranded at the topmost of the lighthouse, but alive. He lies on his back and stares at the exposed iron framework of the lens room. There is not a tuft of cloud in the sky. Only a giant sun. W.B. knows that were he to avoid burning alive at the hands of the flames, to stay here, sixty-five feet from the ground, under this blazing sun, would cook him just the same. He isn’t frightened or angered but exhausted. Every ounce of strength, vaporizing into the air. W.B. thinks of Carter, envies him. His death was violent, thinks W.B., but it must have been swift, and somehow merciful. W.B. knows he’ll get no such luxury. He’ll be left to die here, soaked in blood and oil and soot, to suffer and perish, alone. W.B. knows he wasn’t meant to survive. There can only be one ending, thinks W.B. He stands, wobbles, then stands. He loads the breech of his rifle and steps out on to the platform. W.B. sees the Indians looting the keeper’s cabin for supplies. He fires and the clatter of the percussion rifle rings against the steel of the platform. A cluster of Indians fire back, and finally, W.B. gets hit. He catches three bullets in one foot, two in the other, and one in the thigh. W.B. collapses. In dying, he imagines heaven to be a place with good milk and no mosquitoes.
W.B. opens his eyes and sees blue. Empty and outstretched blue. The sun is white. The pain returns, searing him from the inside. He is feverish and dehydrated, his lips shriveled into rinds. His legs are swollen and immobile. A soft wind pats his wounds. W.B. hears someone calling his name, as if from the clouds, asking him if it’s death he wants.
..... “Still alive up there? W.B.? Can you hear me? It was me who brought them. The Indians, I mean. I tried getting you to leave but you and your senseless duty. You wouldn’t let it go and look what it got you. W.B? You hearing me? I hope you’re alive W.B., and if you are, and you get down from there, I’m telling you to leave this place. They’re coming back for more, W.B. They’re coming for everything. You’re a good man, W.B., but you’re hard luck. You hearing me?”
..... W.B. rolls his body towards the ocean-side and there, along the shore, stands Carter.
..... “How?” asks W.B., his voice creaking like a door.
..... “How? You all shot up and dying and you want to ask how?”
..... “Why?” asks W.B.
..... “I got a wife, W.B. And two children. They ran away and joined the 'Noles and sent word to me what they were planning. I held them off until Dubose was gone. Tried getting you to leave too, but you just too damn stubborn.”
..... “How what?”
..... “How,” says W.B.
..... “I’m telling you what happened.”
..... W.B. gathers what little saliva he can, tries swallowing. He closes his eyes, opens them again. And there’s Carter, on the beach, looking up towards him.
..... “You went on about duty,” says Carter. “Made it seem like dying was your duty. I never could understand it. All the freedom in the world and you done chained yourself to that damn lighthouse.”
..... “I don’t,” says W.B, his eyes blinking, trying to hold on to Carter.
..... “I came back to see if you was dead is all,” says Carter. “I understand if you're angry. I wouldn’t blame you. I been angry all my life. I say keep that anger, W.B. Soak it up. It'll keep you alive. Lord knows it did me.”
..... W.B. opens his mouth to speak and nothing but a dry wind escapes. He looks for Carter but Carter is gone. W.B. shuts his eyes, opens them. Still, no Carter.
The following day, the Navy arrives. W.B. wakes to the sounds of men footing around the base of the lighthouse. For a moment, he believes them to be the Indians, back to finish what they started. But no, these are Marines. He hears their voices, hears them debating how best to rescue the stranded keeper. Someone calls to him.
..... “Thompson? W.B. Thompson?”
..... “Are there any other survivors?”
..... “We heard the blast. Twelve miles out, and we heard the blast.”
..... “Can you guide us across the rocks?”
..... “If you’re alive, give us a sign.”
..... With his remaining strength, W.B. reaches for the railing and drags himself enough to peer over the edge of the platform, His vision is blurred but he can make out the sails of a double-masted schooner whipping in the wind, the word Motto tattooed across its hull. He turns on to his back, and fires his pistol into the air.
..... "Well I'll be goddamned. He's alive." A sailor in blue trousers points towards W.B.
..... I'll be goddamned too, thinks W.B.
..... Large purple welts grow alongside his wounds, the infection spreading like webbing. He can hardly move his left leg. Can't bend either knee. No water. No food. A racing fever. All moisture being sucked out of him. If they can rescue him, that'd be grand, thinks W.B. If not, that'd be easier.
..... Another ship arrives. And then another. W.B. howls with pain. The men on the ground wait for the dying man to quiet, then tell him to prepare to be rescued. But not a single kite makes it to the ledge of the platform. The breeze is that puny. W.B. hears the men argue beneath him, hears the chopping of wood, the fashioning of steel. W.B. stares at the sky but somehow sees everything happening on the ground beneath him. He sees the rubble of the keeper's cabin, the checkered patches of blood from the few Indians he managed to hit. He sees the Navy men, sees their mouths and their moustaches, sees the rope and twine wrapped around the iron ramrod fired from a musket, sees them raise a tail block and stanchion to deliver the assistant keeper down to them.
..... They place W.B. on a stretcher made of oak and cowhide. They cut his pant legs into strips and remove them, wrap a soaked towel over his wounds and carry him towards the ship.
..... “We found your Negro,” says the Captain. The man is square-jawed, eyes like cannonballs.
..... W.B. tries to sit up and the Captain places his hand on W.B., lays him back down.
..... “Care to identify him?” asks the Captain.
..... W.B. nods and the men carry him towards the body. Two sailors are bent over, looking at the corpse. The sight is gruesome. The stink is worse.
..... “Staircase burnt him something awful,” says the Captain.
..... W.B. looks at the body, looks at the jungle. "Any other bodies?" asks W.B.
..... "Can't say that there is," answers the Captain.
..... "I shot two, maybe three of them."
..... “The Indians drag their dead back with them,” says the Captain. “If you did catch any, there’d be no way to tell.”
..... W.B. considers this. "We bringing him on the ship with us?" asks W.B.
..... "A body like that? No chance. No telling what kind of sickness he'd bring on. That’s why we brought you over. You want to say anything before we bury him?”
..... "No," says W.B. He changes his mind. “He was a good man,” says W.B. “Never told a lie.”
..... The Captain summons three men and directs them to begin digging a grave.
..... "Goddamn Indians," says the Captain. "No respect for life. Least he died a noble death. Protecting the lighthouse, protecting you."
..... “He had his priorities in the right place. No doubt about that.”
..... “Listen, Thompson. We’ve got ourselves a newspaperman with us. Says he’d like a word with you. When you’re better, of course. But you fought yourself an entire army of Indians and survived. Not too many out there can say the same. You’re a real hero. And he’s going to make sure everyone knows it. W.B. Thompson, Indian killer. You should be proud.”
..... “You got doctors on that ship?” asks Thompson.
..... “Ain’t quite the best but, they’ll do.”
..... “Have them patch me up, then send your man over. I’d like to talk to him while the details are fresh.”
..... “It’s a hell of a story,” says the Captain.
..... “That it is,” says W.B. “If only Carter were around to hear me tell it.”