That night the rumor was answered in one breathless exchange. I had searched out the answer, though it took years to stumble upon. I had been speculating about this very moment since stepping foot on Key Marco four years earlier with a hopeful salesman pitching the island’s merits to my family. Property developers had forsaken its original name, Horr’s Island, as an impediment to marketing. Even though it was a scruffy little island, a ridiculed step-sister to full grown and glittery Marco Island just over the water, the developers aimed to attract high-end customers.
We first came by pontoon boat through the mangrove islands to a slipshod dock, curious to see the advertised paradise. The tanned salesman, wearing khaki shorts, a broad brimmed hat and a shirt featuring hula dancers, had guided us into the waiting Land Rover. Its wide tires had cut through the deep sand of the surveyor’s road, ferrying us to view the lots for sale. My then ten year old, suburban eyes took in the wild hillocks, tilting palms and prickly pear cactus. I imagined swarthy pirates popping out at the next bend in the road. The sound of the salesman’s snappy patter had caught my ear. “Yes, you have stepped into a tropical paradise,” he’d said. “This island is home to several endangered animal species, gopher tortoises, ospreys, bobcats and even a Florida panther.” I remember the look Mom fired to Dad like a hot potato.
“Panther?” she squeaked. “Aren’t they extinct here?”
“Don’t worry,” back-pedaled the salesman. “It’s probably just a rumor. I’ve never seen a panther out here myself.”
The developers poured their gold to pave the road and build an umbilical bridge to Marco Island. We buried our treasure on the island in the form of a “mansion,” as my brother dubbed our second home. On every visit I drove my golf cart along the two and a half paved miles past the four homes scattered between 128 unsold lots. “Paradise” wasn’t exactly a best seller. That was good for me, though. Unrestricted, I explored the island’s woods and waters. I figured I knew this island as well as any Calusa Indian that had walked this land more than 1300 years earlier. Better even than Captain Horr, the island’s previous owner. Remnant walls of his home, built of tabby in 1870, stood as a silent witness to his pineapple plantation. If the Calusa’s spirits, or even Captain Horr’s, could have guided me, then maybe I’d have had my answer sooner.
The salesman was right. Not a day passed when I didn’t stop my golf cart along the road to appreciate the paradise before me. I’d inspect the archaic gopher tortoises, unchanged since the time of dinosaurs. Their high-humped, army-tan shells protected the scrawny necks that struggled to hold up oversized heads. With serrated beaks they cut the grass with military precision. A red-shouldered hawk watched me from a favorite perch, the top of a lamppost. The hawk and I scanned the street for snakes. Black racers were common, yellow rat snakes, less so. The racers always bit me when I thrust them into my pillow case for the homeward journey. I wanted to show off my prize at home. The hawk might have taken a snake home, too, a prize meal for impatient young. Ospreys also watched me. But I didn’t take their food. Efficient hunters, they could catch fish faster than my friend Captain Ted, the fishing guide. That left them plenty of time to sit and watch the world go by.
Our visits over the years were frequent, but too short - usually a week, sometimes ten days. No matter how long we stayed, we always went fishing with Captain Ted. Lanky, leathery and loquacious, with gnarled fingers and missing teeth, Captain Ted often shared his boyhood memories of Florida. How the indigo snakes were as common as litter and as big around as my soda pop can, how the gators lurked in every drainage ditch along the highway, how he gigged frogs on his airboat in the everglades and fried them up for dinner. He was my hero. “You bet there’s a panther round ‘bout your house,” he said. “But you don’t have to worry none ‘bout him. He won’t bother you.” He always spoke that way; nothing worried him, except slow business.
Nighttime was best for finding animals. The golf cart had lights, but I had a spotlight with a powerful, wide beam. It shined so brightly I could see the purple and yellow stripes on the snails climbing the gumbo limbo trees in the woods. I spotted hawks on the lampposts, screech owls in the trees ready to grab an unwary rodent, and raccoon families heading to the docks to fish.
One night, in the shadows cast by the palms, I came upon a bobcat sitting as though transfixed. I stared at her and she returned my gaze. She was probably as curious about this four-wheeled animal as I was about her. Like all the animals on the island, she wasn’t afraid of me. I wasn’t afraid either; I was too big for dinner. When she slipped into the woods, I hurried home to share news of my sighting.
Mom was a little worried. Sure, a bobcat wasn’t too bad, but we’d been told by Captain Ted there was a panther on the Island. We’d spotted what we thought was the panther from the car one night after dinner in town. We had caught just a glimpse of haunches and a tail as it ran off the road, so we weren’t convinced. Could it be true that a panther traveled back and forth between Key Marco and Marco Island? Mom wasn’t too keen that I find out the hard way. She argued in favor of my B-B gun to chase it off after Dad convinced me the knife in my hatband wasn’t a practical defense. An air horn became standard equipment on the golf cart as the most viable solution; the loud noise should scare off any creature. I also got walkie-talkies. The new equipment seemed to act like a talisman, preventing my spotting the panther. I was sorely tempted to leave it behind to see if my luck changed.
That night wasn’t much different than the many other nights I’d prowled the island. I’d been out earlier when the sun was going down, driving the length of the island searching for critters. Now, 11:00 pm, it’s time for the last round before bed. Cruising along, I relaxed in the cool night air after a sweltering day. There wasn’t another soul in sight, but I was hardly alone. The noise of owls screeching, wings flapping, insects chirping and animals moving through the thick brush under the star-spread sky kept me company. I saw an animal with a long tail leap from a tree. I grabbed my spotlight as I turned the cart around and shined my light at the base of the tree. Twin lights reflected back at me and approached on silent feet. I chuckled to myself when I recognized a feral cat, not the big cat, and pointed the cart toward home.
A twig snapping across the road drew my attention. I trained my spotlight along the forest edge. There he was, his unmistakable big yellow eyes caught in my circle of light. I inhaled sharply. I gripped the lamp tighter in my now sweaty hands. Paradise found. I was eye to eye with a Florida panther. I couldn’t turn away from the big cat’s impassive stare. He sat stock-still, ears forward, not twitching his whiskers or flicking his tail. I exhaled. I drew in a deep breath. It was rich with the musky smell of unadulterated feline pheromones. That broke the spell. The panther vanished back into the woods with a grace and silence I could never mimic.
“Yeehaa!” I shouted to the moon, pressing the accelerator to the floor. The rumor was true. Captain Ted’s words came back to me as I headed home. “He won’t bother you none, son. He’s curious, just like you.” I still wonder if a cat can feel satisfaction.