Black Caesar's Clan by Albert Payson Terhune
CHAPTER I. THE HIDDEN PATH
CHAPTER II. THE MAN IN THE DARK
CHAPTER III. THE MOCKING BIRD
CHAPTER IV. THE STRANGER FROM NOWHERE
CHAPTER V. TRAPS AND TRAPPER
CHAPTER VI. IN THE DAY OF BATTLE
CHAPTER VII. SECRETS
CHAPTER VIII. THE SIEGE
CHAPTER IX. THE FIGURE IN WHITE
CHAPTER X. THE GHOST TREE
THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED, MOST GRATEFULLY
TO MY FRIEND
JOHN E. PICKETT
"THE COUNTRY GENTLEMAN"
A wiggling, brainless, slimy atom began it. He and trillions of
his kind. He was the Coral Worm ("Anthozoa," if you prefer).
He and his tribe lived and died on the sea-bottom, successive
generations piling higher on the skeletons and lifework—or the
life-loafing, for they were lazy atoms—of those that went before. At
last the coral reef crawled upward until in uncharted waters it was
tall enough to smash a wooden ship-keel.
Then, above the surface of the waves it nosed its way, grayish
white, whalebacked. From a hundred miles distant floated a
cigar-shaped mangrove-bud, bobbing vertically, through the ocean,
until it chanced to touch the new-risen coral reef. The mangrove,
alone of all trees, will sprout and grow in salt water. The
mangrove's trunk, alone of all trunks, is impervious to the corrosive
action of the sea.
At once the bud set to work. It drove an anchor-root into the
reef, then other roots and still others. It shot up to the height of
a foot or two, and thence sent thick red-brown roots straight downward
into the coral again.
And so on, until it had formed a tangled root-fence for many yards
alongshore. After which, its work being done, the mangrove proceeded
to grow upward into a big and glossy-leaved shade-tree, making buds
for further fences.
Meanwhile, every particle of floating seaweed, every dead fish or
animal, all vegetation, etc., which chanced to wash into that
fence-tangle, stayed there. It is easier for matter, as well as for
man, to get entangled in mangrove roots than to get out again.
The sun and the rain did their work on this decaying stuff. Thus,
soil was formed, atop the coral and in the hollows scooped out of its
surface by wind or tide.
Presently, a coconut, hurled from its stem in the Bahamas or in
Cuba, by a hurricane, set its palmleaf sail-sprout and was gale-driven
across the intervening seas, floating ashore on the new-risen land.
There it sprouted. Birds, winds, waves, brought germs of other
trees. The subtropical island was complete.
Island, key, reef—reef, key, island—with the intervening gaps of
azure-emerald water, bridged, bit by bit, by the coral,—to-day a
sea-surface, to-morrow a gray-white reef, next day a mangrove hedge,
and the next an expanse of spectacular verdure and glistening
So Florida was born.
So, at least, its southern portion was born, and is still in daily
process of birth. And, according to Agassiz and many another, the
entire Peninsula may have arisen in this fashion, from the green-blue
Dredge and shovel are laboring hard to guide or check the endless
undersea coral growth before bay and channel and lagoon shall all be
dry land. The wormlike, lazy, fast-multiplying Anthozoa is fighting
passively but with terrific power, to set at naught all man's might
In time, coral sand-spit and mangrove swamp were cleared for a
wonderland playground, of divine climate whither winter tourists
throng by the hundred thousand. In time, too, these sand-spits and
swamps and older formations of the sunny peninsula furnished homes and
sources of livelihood or of wealth to many thousands more, people,
these, to whom Florida is a Career, not a Resort.
As in every land which has grown swiftly and along different lines
from the rest of the country, there still are mystery and romance and
thrills to be found lurking among the keys and back of the
mangrove-swamps and along the mystic reaches of sunset shoreline.
With awkward and inexpert touch, my story seeks to set forth some
Understand, please, that this book is rank melodrama. It has
scant literary quality. It is not planned to edify. Its only
mission is to entertain you and,—if you belong to the action-loving
majority, to give you an occasional thrill.
Perhaps you will like it. Perhaps you will not. But I do not
think you will go to sleep over it. There are worse recommendations
than that for any book.
ALBERT PAYSON TERHUNE.
CHAPTER I. THE HIDDEN PATH
Overhead sang the steady trade wind, tempering the golden
sunshine's heat. To eastward, under an incredibly blue sky,
stretched the more incredibly multi-hued waters of Biscayne Bay, the
snow-white wonder-city of Miami dreaming on its shores.
Dividing the residence and business part of the city from the
giant hotels, Flagler Avenue split the mass of buildings, from
back-country to bay. To its westward side spread the shaded expanse
of Royal Palm Park, with its deep-shaded short lane of Australian
pines, its rustling palm trees, its white church and its frond-flecked
vistas of grass.
Here, scarce a quarter-century ago, a sandspit had broiled beneath
an untempered sun. Shadeless, grassless, it had been an abomination
of desolution and a rallying-place for mosquitoes. Then had come the
hand of man. First, the Royal Palm Hotel had sprung into stately
existence, out of nothingness. Then other caravansaries. Palm and
pine and vivid lawn-grass had followed. The mosquitoes had fled far
back to the mangrove swamps. And a rarely beautiful White City had
It was Sunday morning. From the park's bandstand, William J.
Bryan was preaching to his open-air Sunday School class of tourists,
two thousand strong. Around the bandstand the audience stood or sat
in rapt interest.
The Australian-pine lane, to the rear, was lined with all manner
of automobiles, from limousine to battered flivver. The cars'
occupants listened as best they could could—through the whirr of
sea-planes and the soft hum of Sabbath traffic and the dry slither of
a myriad grating palm-fronds in the trade-wind's wake—to the
The space of shaded grass, between lane and hotel-grounds and
bandstand, was starred by white-clad children, and by men who
sprawled drowsily upon the springy turf, their straw hats tilted
above their eyes. The time was mid-February. The thermometers on the
Royal Palm veranda registered seventy-three. No rain had fallen in
weeks to mar the weather's perfection.
"Scientists are spending $5,000,000 to send an expedition into
Africa in search of the 'missing-link'!" the orator was thundering.
"It would be better for them to spend all or part of that money, in
seeking closer connection with their Heavenly Father, than with the
A buzz of approval swept the listeners. That same buzz came
irritatingly to the ears of a none-too-sprucely dressed young man who
lay, with eyes shut, under the shifting shade of a giant palm, a
hundred yards away. He had not caught the phrase which inspired the
applause—thanks to the confusion of street sounds and the multiple
dry rattle of the palm-fronds and the whirring passage of a sea-plane
which circled above park and bay. But the buzz aroused him.
He had not been asleep. Prone on his back, hat pulled over his
upper face, he had been lying motionless there, for the best part of
an hour. Now, stretching, he got to his feet in leisurely fashion,
brushed perfunctorily at his rumpled clothes, and turned his steps
toward the double line of plumy Australian pines which bordered the
lane between hotel grounds and avenue.
Only once did he hesitate in his slouching progress. That was
when he chanced to come alongside one of the cars, in the long rank,
drawn up in the shade. The machine's front seat was occupied by a
giant of a man, all in white silk, a man of middle age, blonde and
bearded, a man who, but for his modern costume, might well have posed
as a Norse Viking.
The splendid breadth of shoulder and depth of chest caught the
wanderer's glance and won his grudging approval. Thence, his
elaborately careless gaze shifted to the car's rear seat where sat a
girl. He noted she was small and dainty and tanned and dressed in
white sport-clothes. Also, that one of her arms was passed around the
shoulder of a big young gold-and-white collie dog,—a dog that
fidgeted uneasily and paid scant heed to the restraining hand and
caressing voice of his mistress.
As the shabby man paused momentarily to scan the car's three
occupants, the girl happened to look toward him. Her look was brief
and impersonal. Yet, for the merest instant, her eyes met his. And
their glances held each other with a momentary intentness. Then the
girl turned again toward the restless dog, seeking to quiet him. And
the man passed on.
Moving with aimless slowness—one is not long in Southern Florida
without acquiring a leisurely gait the lounger left the park and
strolled up Thirteenth Avenue, towards the bridge which spans the
Miami River and forms a link between the more thickly settled part of
the town and its southerly suburbs.
As he crossed the bridge, a car passed him, moving rapidly
eastward, and leaving a choky trail of dust. He had bare time to see
it was driven by the Norse giant, and that the girl had moved to the
front seat beside the driver. The collie (fastened by a cord running
through his collar from one side of the tonneau to the other) lay
fidgetingly on the rear seat.
For miles the man plodded on, under the wind-tempered sunshine.
Passing Brickell Avenue and then the last of the city, he
continued,—now on the road, now going cross-country,—until he came
out on a patch of broken beach, with a background of jungle-like
The sun had gone beyond the meridian mark during his ramble
southward, and the afternoon was hurrying by. For the way was long,
though he had tramped steadily.
As he reached the bit of sandy foreshore, he paused for the first
time since stopping to survey the car. An unpainted rowboat was drawn
up on the beach. Half way between it and the tangle of woodland
behind, was a man clad only in undershirt and dirty duck trousers. He
was yanking along by the scruff of the neck a protesting and evidently
The man was big and rugged. Weather and sea had bronzed him to
the hue of an Arab. Apparently, he had sighted the dog, and had run
his boat ashore to capture the stray animal. He handled his prize
none too gently, and his management was calling forth all the collie's
resentment. But as the man had had the wit to seize the dog by the
scruff of the neck and to keep himself out of the reach of the
luckless creature's vainly snapping jaws, these protests went for
Within thirty feet of the boat, the dog braced himself for a new
effort to tear free. The man, in anger, planted a vigorous kick
against the collie's furry side. As his foot was bare, the kick lost
much of its potential power to injure. Yet it had the effect of
rousing to sudden indignation the dusty youth who had stopped on his
tramp from Miami to watch the scene.
"Whose dog is that?" he demanded, striding forward, from the
shade, and approaching the struggling pair.
"Who the blue blazes are you?" countered the barefoot man, his
eyes running contemptuously over the shabby and slight-built figure.
"My name is Brice," said the other. "Gavin Brice. Not that it
matters. And now, perhaps you'll answer my question. Whose dog is
"Mine," returned the barefoot man, renewing his effort to drag the
collie toward the boat.
"If he's yours," said Brice, pleasantly, "stop hauling him along
and let him loose. He'll follow you, without all that hustling. A
good collie will always follow, his master, anywhere."
"When I'm honin' for your jabber," retorted the other, "I'll come
a-askin' for it."
He drew back his foot once more, for a kick. But, with a lazy
competence, Brice moved forward and gave him a light push, sidewise,
on the shoulder. There was science and a rare knowledge of leverage
in the mild gesture. When a man is kicking, he is on only one foot.
And, the right sort of oblique push will not only throw him off his
balance, but in such a direction that his second foot cannot come to
earth in position to help him restore that balance.
Under the skillfully gentle impact of Brice's shove, the man let
go of the snarling collie and hopped insanely for a second or so, with
arms outflung. Then he sat down ungracefully on the sand.
Scarce had he touched ground when he was up.
But the moment had sufficed for the collie to go free. Instead of
running off, the dog moved over to Brice, thrust his cool muzzle into
the man's hand, and, with wagging tail, looked up lovingly at him.
A collie has brains beyond most dogs. And this collie recognized
that the pleasant-voiced, indolent-looking stranger had just rescued
him from a captor who had been treating him abominably. Wherefore, in
gratitude and dawning adoration, he came to pay his respects.
Brice patted the silken head so confidingly upraised to him. He
knew dogs. Especially, he knew collies. And he was hot with
indignation at the needlessly brutal treatment just accorded this
But he had scant time for emotions of any kind. The beach comber
had regained his feet, and in the same motion had lost his
self-control. Head lowered, fists swinging, he came charging down
upon the stripling who had the audacity to upset him.
Brice did not await his onset. Slipping lithely to one side he
avoided the bull-rush, all the time talking in the same pleasantly
"I saw this dog, earlier in the day," said he, "in a car, with
some people. They drove this way. The dog must have chewed his cord
and then jumped or fallen out, and strayed here. You saw him, from
the water, and tried to steal him. Next to a vivisectionist, the
filthiest man God ever made is the man who kicks a dog. It's lucky—"
He got no further. Twice, during his short speech, he had had to
twist, with amazing speed, out of the way of profanity-accompanied
rushes. Now, pressed too close for comfort, he halted, ducked a
violent left swing, and ran from under the flailing right arm of his
Then, darting back for fully twenty-five feet, he cried out,
"I won't buy him from you. But I'll fight you for him, if you
As he spoke, he drew from his pocket a battered and old-fashioned
gold watch. Laying it on the sand, he went on:
"How does this strike you as a sporting offer? Winner to take
both dog and watch? How about it?"
The other had halted in an incipient charge to take note of the
odd proposition. He blinked at the flash of the watch's battered gold
case in the sunshine. For the first time, he seemed a trifle
irresolute. This eel-like antagonist, with such eccentric ideas as to
sport, was something outside the beach-comber's experience. Puzzled,
he stood scowling.
"How about it?" queried Brice. "I hope you'll refuse. I'd rather
be kicked, any day, than have to fight. But—well, I wouldn't rather
see a good dog kicked. Still, if you're content with what you've got,
we'll call it a day. I'll take the dog and be moving on."
The barefoot man's bewilderment was once more merging into wrath,
at the amused superiority in Brice's words and demeanor. He glowered
appraisingly at the intruder. He saw Brice was a half-head shorter
than himself and at least thirty pounds lighter. Nor did Brice's
figure betray any special muscular development. Apparently, there
could be but one outcome to such a battle.
The man's fists clenched, afresh. His big muscles tightened.
Brice saw the menace and spoke again.
"It's only fair to warn you," said he, gently, "that I shall
thrash you worse than ever you've been thrashed before in all your
down-at-heel life. When I was a boy, I saw George Siler beat up five
men who tackled him. Siler wasn't a big man. But he had made a
life-study of leverage. And it served him better than if he'd toted a
machine gun. I studied under him. And then, a bit, under a jui-jutsu
man. You'll have less chance against me than that poor collie had
against you. I only mention it as a friendly warning. Best let
things rest as they are. Come, puppy!" he chirped to the highly
interested dog. "Let's be on our way. Perhaps we can find the
people who lost you. That's what I've been wanting to do, all day,
you know," he added, in a lower voice, speaking confidentially to the
dog, and beginning to stroll off toward the woods.
But the barefoot man would not have it so. Now, he understood.
This sissyfied chap, with the high and-mighty airs, was bluffing.
That was what he was doing. Bluffing! Did he think for a minute he
could get away with it, and with the dog?
A swirl of red fury swept to the beach comber's brain. Wordless,
face distorted, he flung himself at the elusive Brice.
So sudden was his spring that it threatened to take its victim
unaware. Brice's back was turned to the aggressor, and he was
already on his way toward the woods.
Yet, with but a fraction of an inch to spare, he turned to face
the oncoming human whirlwind. This time he did not dart back from the
rush. Perhaps he did not care to. Perhaps there was not time.
Instead, with the speed of light, he stepped in, ducking the
hammer-fist and plying both hands with bewildering quickness and
skill, in a shower of half-arm blows at the beach comber's heart and
wind. His strength was wiry and carefully developed, but it was no
match for his foe's. Yet the hail of body-punches was delivered with
all the effect that science and a perfect knowledge of anatomy could
The beach comber grunted and writhed in sharp discomfort. Then, he
did the one thing possible, by way of reprisal. Before Brice could
dodge out of his close-quarters position, the other clasped him tight
in his bulgingly powerful arms, gripping the lighter man to his chest
in a hug which had the gruesome force of a boa-constrictor's, and
increasing the pressure with all his weight and mighty strength.
There was no space for maneuvering or for wriggling free. Clear
from the ground Brice's feet were swung. The breath was squeezed out
of him. His elastic strength was cramped and made useless. His lungs
seemed bursting. The pressure on his ribs was unbearable. Like many
a better man he was paying the price for a single instant of
One arm was caught against his side. The other was impeded and
robbed of all efficient hitting power, being pinioned athwart his
breast. And steadily the awful pressure was increased. There was no
apparent limit to the beach comber's powers of constriction. The
blood beat into Brice's eyes. His tongue began to protrude from a
Then, all at once, he ceased to struggle, and lay limp and
moveless in the conqueror's grasp. Perceiving which, the beach
comber relaxed the pressure, to let his conquered enemy slide, broken,
to the ground.
This, to his blank amaze, Gavin Brice neglected to do. The old
ruse of apparent collapse had served its turn, for perhaps the
millionth time. The beach-comber was aware of a lightning-quick
tensing of the slumped muscles. Belatedly, he knew what had happened,
and he renewed his vise-grip. But he was too late. Eel-like, Gavin
had slithered out of the imprisoning arms. And, as these arms came
together once more, in the bear-hug, Brice shot over a burning
left-hander to the beach-comber's unguarded jaw. Up flew the big arms
in belated parry, but not soon enough to block a deliberately-aimed
right swing, which Brice drove whizzing into the jaw's point.
The brace of blows rocked the giant, so that he reeled drunkenly
under their dynamic force. The average man must have been floored and
even knocked senseless by such well-directed smashes to so vital a
spot. But the beach-comber merely staggered back, seeking
instinctively to guard his battered face, and to regain his balance.
In at the reeling foe tore Gavin Brice, showering him with
systematic punches to every vulnerable spot above the belt line. It
was merciless punishment, and it was delivered with rare deftness.
Yet, the iron-bodied man on whom it was inflicted merely grunted
again and, under the avalanche of blows, managed to regain his balance
and plunge back to the assault. A born fighter, he was now obsessed
with but one idea, namely, to destroy this smaller and faster opponent
who was hurting him so outrageously. As far as the beach comber was
concerned: it was a murder-battle now, with no question of mercy asked
The collie had been viewing this astounding scene in eager
interest. Never before, in his short life, had he seen two humans
fight. And, even now, he was not at all certain that it was a fight
and not some intensely thrilling game. Thus had he watched two boys
wrestle and box, in his own puppyhood. And, for venturing to jump into
that jolly fracas, he had been scolded and sent back to his kennel.
Yet, there was something about this clash, between the giant who
had mistreated him and the softer-voiced man who had rescued him,
which spoke of mad excitement, and which stirred the collie's own
excitable temperament to the very depths. Dancingly, he pattered
around the fighters, tulip ears cocked, deep-set eyes aglow, his
fanfare of barks echoing far back through the silent woods.
The beach comber, rallying from the dual jaw-bombardment, bored
back at his foe, taking the heaviest and most scientific punishment,
in a raging attempt to gather Brice once more into the trap of his
terrible arms. But Gavin kept just out of reach, moving with an
almost insolent carelessness, and ever flashing some painful blow to
face or to body as he retreated.
Then, as the other charged, Gavin sidestepped with perfect ease,
and, when the beach-comber wheeled clumsily to face him, threw one
foot forward and at the same time pushed the larger man's shoulder
violently with his open palm. It was a repetition of the "leverage
theory" Gavin had so recently been expounding to his antagonist. It
caught the lunging giant at precisely the right non-balance angle, as
he was turning about. And, for the second time, the beach-comber sat
down on the trampled sand, with unexpected suddenness and force.
Gavin Brice laughed aloud, with boyish mischief, and stood back,
waiting for the cursing madman to scramble to his feet again. But, as
the beach comber leaped up—and before he could get fairly balanced on
his legs—another foot-and-palm maneuver sent him sprawling.
This time the puffing and foaming and insanely-badgered man did
not try at once to rise. Instead, his hand whipped back to his thigh.
"My clumsy friend," Brice was saying, pleasantly, "I'm afraid
you'll never win that watch. Shall we call it a day and quit? Or—"
He broke off with an exclamation of genuine wrath. For, with
astonishing swiftness, the big hand had flown to the hip of the
ragged trousers, had plucked a short-bladed fishing knife from its
sheath, and had hurled it, dexterously, with the strength of a
catapult, straight at his smiling adversary's throat.
The sub-tropic beach comber and the picaroon acquire nasty tricks
with knives, and have an uncanny skill at their use.
Brice twisted to one side, with a sharp suddenness that all but
threw his back out of joint. The knife whizzed through the still air
like a great hornet. The breath of its passage fanned Gavin's averted
face, as he wrenched his head out of its path.
The collie had watched the supposed gambols of the two men with
keen, but impersonal, interest. But here at last was something he
could understand. Instinct teaches practically every dog the sinister
nature of a thrown object. The man on the ground had hurled something
at the man whom the collie had begun to love. That meant warfare. To
the canine mind it could mean nothing else.
And, ruff a-bristle and teeth bared, the dog flew at the beach
comber. The latter had followed his throw by leaping to his feet.
But, as he rose, the collie was at him. For an instant, the furry
whirlwind was snarling murderously at his throat, and the man was
beating convulsively at this unexpected new enemy.
Then, almost before the collie could slash to the bone one of the
hairy big hands that thrust him backward, Gavin Brice had reached the
spot in a single bound, had shoved the dog to one side and was at the
"Clear out, puppy!" he shouted, imperatively. "This is my meat!
When people get to slinging knives, there's no more sense in handling
them with gloves!"
The debonaire laziness was gone from Brice's voice and manner. His
face was dead-white. His eyes were blazing. His mouth was a mere
gash in the grim face. Even as he spoke, he had thrust the snarling
collie away, and was at the beach-comber.
No longer was it a question of boxing or of half-jesting
horseplay. The use of the knife had put this fight on a new plane.
And, like a wild beast, Gavin Brice was attacking his big foe. But,
unlike a wild beast, he kept his head, as he charged.
Disregarding the menace of the huge arms, he came to grips,
without striking a single blow. Around him the beach-comber flung
his constricting grasp. But this time the grip was worthless.
For, Brice's left shoulder jutted out in such manner as to keep
the arms from getting their former hold around the body itself, and
Brice's right elbow held off the grip on the other side. At the same
time the top of Brice's head buried itself under the beachcomber's
chin, forcing the giant's jaw upward and backward. Then, safe inside
his opponent's guard, he abandoned his effort to stave off the giant's
hold, and passed his own arms about the other's waist, his hands
meeting under the small of the larger man's back.
The beach comber tried now to use his freed arms to gain the grip
that had once been so effective. But his clasp could close only over
the slope of Brice's back and could find no purchase.
While the man was groping for the right hold, Gavin threw all his
own power into a single move. Tightening his underhold, and drawing
in on the small of the giant's back, he raised himself on his toes,
and pressed the top of his head, with all his might, against the
bottom of the beach-comber's chin.
The trick was not new. But it was fearsomely effective. It was,
as Gavin had explained, all a question of leverage. The giant's waist
was drawn forward, His chin, simultaneously, was shoved backward.
Such a dual cross pressure was due, eventually, to mean one of two
things:—either the snapping of the spine or else the breaking of the
neck. Unless the grip could be broken, there was no earthly help for
The beach comber, in agony of straining spine and throat, thrashed
wildly to free himself. He strove to batter the tenacious little man
to senselessness. But he could hit nothing but the sloping back, or
aim clumsily cramped hooks for the top and sides of Gavin's protected
Meantime, the pressure was increasing, with a coldly scientific
precision. Human nature could not endure it. In his extremity, the
beach comber attempted the same ruse that had been so successful for
Brice. He slumped, in pseudo-helplessness. The only result was to
enable Gavin to tighten his hold, unopposed by the tensing of the
enemy's wall of muscles.
"I'm through!" bellowed the tortured giant, stranglingly, his
entire huge body one horror of agony. "'Nuff! I'm—"
He got no further. For, the unspeakable anguish mounted to his
brain. And he swooned.
Gavin Brice let the great body slide inert to the sand. He stood,
flushed and panting a little, looking down at the hulk he had so
nearly annihilated. Then, as the beach comber's limbs began to twitch
and his eyelids to quiver, Brice turned away.
"Come along, puppy," he bade the wildly excited collie. "He isn't
dead. Another couple of seconds and his neck or his back must have
gone. I'm glad he fainted first. A killing isn't a nice thing to
remember on wakeful nights, the killing of even a cur like that. Come
on, before he wakes up. I'm going somewhere. And it's a stroke of
golden luck that I've got you to take with me, by way of welcome."
He had picked up and pocketed his watch. Now, lifting the knife,
he glanced shudderingly at its ugly curved blade. Then he tossed it
far out into the water. After which, he chirped again to the gladly
following collie and made off down the beach, toward a loop of
mangrove swamp that swelled out into the water a quarter-mile farther
The dog gamboled gayly about him, as they walked, and tried to
entice him into a romp. Prancing invitingly toward Brice, the collie
would then flee from him in simulated terror. Next, crouching in
front of him, the dog would snatch up a mouthful of sand, growl, and
make pattering gestures with his white forefeet at Gavin's dusty
Failing to lure his new master into a frolic, the dog fell sober
and paced majestically alongside him, once or twice earning an
absent-minded pat on the head by thrusting his muzzle into the cup of
the walker's hand.
As they neared the loop of the swamp, the collie looked back, and
growled softly, under his breath. Gavin followed the direction of the
dog's gaze. He saw the beach comber sit up, and then, with much pain
and difficulty, get swayingly to his feet.
"Don't worry, old chap," Gavin said to the growling collie. "He's
had all he can carry, for one day. He's not going to follow us. By
this time, he'll begin to realize, too, that his face is battered
pretty much to a pulp, and that some of my body-smashes are flowering
into bruises. I pity him when he wakes up to-morrow. He'll be too
stiff to move an inch, without grunting. His pluck and his nerve are
no match for his strength .... Here we are!" he broke off, beginning
to skirt the hither edge of the swamp. "Unless all my dope is wrong,
it ought to be somewhere close to this."
He walked more slowly, his keen eyes busily probing the
impenetrable face of the swamp. He was practically at the very end
of the beach. In front, the mangroves ran out into the water, and in
an unbroken line they extended far back to landward.
The shining dark leaves made a thick screen, shutting from view
the interior of the swamp. The reddish roots formed an equally
impenetrable fence, two feet high, all along the edge. It would have
been easier to walk through a hedge of bayonets than to invade that
"Where mangroves grow, puppy," exhorted Brice, "there is water.
Salt water, at that. The water runs in far, here. You can see that,
by the depth of this mangrove forest. At first glance, it looks like
an impasse, doesn't it? And yet it isn't. Because—"
He broke off, in his ruminative talk. The collie, bored perhaps,
by standing still so long, had at first turned seaward. But, as a
wavelet washed against his white forefeet, he drew back, annoyed, and
began aimlessly to skirt the swamp, to landward. Before he had
traveled twenty yards, he vanished.
For a second or so, Gavin Brice stared stupidly at the phenomenon
of the jungle-like wall of mangroves that had swallowed a
seventy-pound dog. Then his brow cleared, and a glint of eagerness
came into his eye. Almost running, he hurried to the spot where the
dog had vanished. Then he halted, and called softly:
"Come, puppy! Here!"
In immediate obedience to his call, the dog reappeared, at the
swamp's edge, wagging his plumy tail, glad to be summoned. Before the
collie could stir, Brice was at his side, taking sharp note of the
direction from which the dog had just stepped out of the mangroves.
In front, the wall of leaves and branches still hung, seemingly
impenetrable. The chief difference between this spot and any on
either side, was that the mangrove boughs had apparently been trained
to hang so low that the roots were invisible.
Tentatively, Brice drew aside an armful of branches, just above
the waiting dog. And, as though he had pulled back a curtain, he
found himself facing a well-defined path, cut through the tangled
thicket of root and trunk and bough—a path that wound out of sight in
the dark recesses of the swamps.
Roots had been cleared away and patches of water filled with them
and with earth. Here and there a plank bridge spanned a gap of deeper
water. Altogether—so far as Brice could judge in the fading
light—the path was an excellent bit of rustic engineering. And it
was hidden as cunningly from casual eyes as ever was a hermit thrush's
Some one had been at much pains and at more expense, to lay out
and develop that secret trail. For it is no easy or cheap task to
build a sure path through such a swamp. From a distance, forests of
mangrove seemed to be massed on rising ground, and to group themselves
about the sides and the crests of knolls. As a matter of fact, the
presence of a mangrove forest is a sign of the very lowest ground,
ground covered for the most part by salt tidewater. The lowest pine
barren is higher than the loftiest mangrove wilderness.
Gavin Brice's aspect of lassitude dropped from him like an outworn
garment. For hours—except during his brief encounter with the beach
comber—he had been steadily on the move, and had covered a good bit
of ground. Yet, any one, seeing him as he traversed the miles from
the Royal Palm Park at Miami, would have supposed from his gait that
he was on some aimless ramble. Now, alert, quick-stepping, eager, he
made his swift way along the windings of the secret path.
Light as were his steps, they creaked lamentably at times on the
boards of a bridge-span. More than once, he heard slitherings, in the
water and marsh to either side, as some serpent or other slimy
swamp-dweller wriggled away, at his passing. The collie trotted
gravely along, just in front of him, pausing once in a while, as if to
make certain the man was following.
The silence and gloom and sinister solemnity of the place had had
a dampening effect on the dog's gay spirits. The backward glances at
his self-chosen master were for reassuring himself, rather than for
guidance. Surroundings have quicker and stronger effect on collies
than on almost any other kind of dog. And these surroundings, very
evidently, were not to the collie's taste. Several times, when the
path's width permitted, he dropped back to Gavin's side, to receive a
word of friendly encouragement or a pat on the head.
Outside of the grove's shadows the sun was sinking. Not with the
glowing deliberation of sunsets in northern latitudes, but with almost
indecent haste. In the dense shade of the forest, twilight had
fallen. But the path still lay clear. And Brice's footsteps
quickened, as in a race with darkness.
Then, at a twist of the path, the way suddenly grew lighter. And
at another turn, twilight brightened into clearness. A hundred feet
ahead was a thin interlacing of moonflower vines, compact enough, no
doubt, to prevent a view of the path to any one standing in the
stronger light beyond the grove, but making distinct to Brice a grassy
Upon this clearing, the brief bright afterglow was shining, for
the trim grass and shrubs of an upwardsloping lawn were clearly
visible. For some minutes the water and the swamp underfoot had given
place to firmer ground, and the character of the trees themselves had
changed. Evidently, the trail had its ending at that screen of
vineleaves draped between two giant gumbo-limbo trees at the lawn's
Thirty feet from the vines, Brice slackened his steps. His lithe
body was vibrant with cautious watchfulness. But, the collie was not
inclined to caution. He hailed with evident relief the sight of open
spaces and of light after the gloomy trail's windings. And he broke
into a canter.
Fearing to call aloud, Brice chirped and hissed softly at the
careering dog. The collie, at sound of the recall, hesitated, then
began to trot back toward Gavin. But, glancing wistfully toward the
light, as he started to obey the summons, his eye encountered
something which swept away all his dawning impulse of obedience.
Athwart the bright end of the path, sprang a furry gray creature,
supple, fluffy, indescribably formless and immense in that deceptive
Brice peered at the animal in astonishment, seeking to classify it
in his mind. But the collie needed no effort of that sort. At first
sight and scent, he knew well to what tribe the furry gray newcomer
belonged. And, with a trumpet-bark of joyous challenge, he dashed at
The creature fluffed itself to double its former size. Then,
spitting and yowling, it ran up the nearer of the two gumbo-limbo
trees. The dog reached the foot of the tree a fraction of a second
too late to seize the fox-like tail of his prey. And he circled
wildly, barking at the top of his lungs and making futile little
running leaps up the shining trunk of the tree.
As well hope for secrecy after the firing of a cannon as after
such a fanfare of barking! Gavin Brice ran forward to grasp the
rackety collie. As he did so, he was vaguely aware that a slender and
white-clad form was crossing the lawn, at a run, toward the tree.
At the path-end, he and the figure came face to face. Though the
other's back was to the fading light, Gavin knew her for the girl he
had seen in the Australian pine lane, at Miami, that day.
"Pardon me," he began, trying in vain to make himself audible
through the collie's frantic barking. "I found your dog, and I have
brought him back to you. We—"
The glib explanation died, in his amazement-contracting throat.
For, at his first word, the girl had checked her run and had stood
for an instant, gazing wideeyed at him. Then, clapping one little
hand to her side, she produced from somewhere a flash of metal.
And Gavin Brice found himself blinking stupidly into the muzzle of
a small revolver, held, unwaveringly, not three feet from his face.
Behind the gun were a pair of steady gray eyes and a face whose
dainty outlines were just now set in a mask of icy grimness.
"That isn't a bluff," ran his involuntary thoughts, as he read the
eyes behind the ridiculously tiny weapon. "She really means to
CHAPTER II. THE MAN IN THE DARK
For several seconds the two stood thus, the man dumfounded,
moveless, gaping, the girl as grimly resolute as Fate itself, the
little revolver steady, its muzzle unwaveringly menacing Brice's face.
The collie continued to gyrate, thunderously around the tree.
"I don't want to shoot you," said the girl presently, and, through
her voice's persistent sternness, Gavin fancied he could read a thrill
of very feminine concern. "I don't want to shoot you. If I can help
it. You will put your hands up."
Meekly, Brice obeyed.
"Now," she resumed, "you will turn around, and go back the way you
came. And you will go as fast as you can travel. I shall follow you
to the second turning. Then I shall fire into the air. That will
bring—one or more of the men. And they will see you don't turn back.
I'm—I'm giving you that much chance to get away. Because I—I don't
She hesitated. The grimness had begun to seep out of her sweet
voice. The revolver-muzzle wobbled, ever so little.
"I'm sorry," began Brice. "But—"
"I don't care to hear any explanations," she cut him short,
sternly. "Your coming along that path could mean only one thing.
You will do as I say.—You will turn about and make what use you can
of the start I'm offering you. Now—"
"I'm sorry," repeated Brice, more determinedly, and trying hard to
keep his twitching face straight. "But I can't do what you ask. It
was hard enough coming along that path, while the light lasted. If I
were to go back over it in the dark, I'd break my neck on a million
mangrove roots. If it's just the same to you, I'll take my chances
with the pistol. It'll be an easier death, and in pleasanter company.
So, if you really must shoot then blaze away!"
He lowered his upraised arms, folding them melodramatically on his
breast, while he sought, through the gloom, to note the effect of his
solemnly uttered speech. The effect was far different and less
sensational than he had expected. At the first sound of his voice
that was audible above the collie's barks, the girl lowered the
revolver and leaned forward to get a clearer view of his face, beneath
the shadow of the vine-leaves.
"I—I thought—" she stammered, and added lamely "I thought you
were—were—were some one else." She paused, then she went on with
some slight return of her earlier sternness "Just the same, your
coming here by that path..."
"There is no magic about it," he assured her, "and very little
mystery. I was taking a stroll along the shore, when I happened upon
that mass of dynamite and fur and springs, yonder. (In his rare
moments of calm, he is a collie,—the best type of show collie, at
that.) He ran ahead of me, through the tangle of mangrove boughs. I
followed, and found a path. He seemed anxious to explore the path,
and I kept on following him, until—"
The girl seemed for the first time aware of the dog's noisy
"Oh!" she exclaimed, looking at the rackety and leaping collie in
much surprise. "I thought it was the stable dog that had treed Simon
Cameron! I didn't notice. He— Why!" she cried, "that's Bobby Burns!
We lost him, on the way here from the station! My brother has gone
back to Miami to offer a reward for him. He came from the North, this
morning. We drove into town to get him. On the way out, he must have
fallen from the back seat. We didn't miss him till we— How did you
happen to find him?"
"He was on the beach, back yonder," explained Brice. "He seemed
to adopt me, and..."
"Haven't I met you, somewhere?" she broke in, studying his
dim-seen face more intently and at closer range.
"No," he made answer. "But you've seen me. At least I saw you.
You, and a big man with a gold beard and a white silk suit, and this
collie, were in a car, listening to Bryan's sermon, this morning. I
recognized the collie, as soon as I saw him again. And I guessed what
must have happened. I guessed, too, that he was a new dog, and that
he hadn't learned the way home, yet. It's lucky I was able to bring
him to you. Or, rather, that he was able to bring himself to you."
"And to think I rewarded you for all your trouble, by threatening
to shoot you!" she said, in sharp contrition.
"Oh, please don't feel sorry for that!" he begged. "It wasn't
really as deadly as you made it seem. That is an old style revolver,
you see, vintage of 1880 or thereabouts, I should say. Not a
self-cocker. And, you'll notice it isn't cocked. So, even if you had
stuck to your lethal threat and had pulled the trigger ever so hard,
I'd still be more or less alive. You'll excuse me for mentioning it,"
he ended in apology, noting her crestfallen air. "Any novice in the
art of slaying might have done the same thing. Shooting people is an
accomplishment that improves with practice."
Coldly, she turned away, and crossed to where the collie was
beginning to weary of his fruitless efforts to climb the shinily
smooth bark of the giant gumbo-limbo. Catching him by the collar, she
"Bobby! Bobby Burns! Stop that silly barking! Stop it at once!
And leave poor little Simon Cameron alone! Aren't you ashamed?"
Now, Bobby was not in the least ashamed—except for his failure to
reach his elusive prey. But, like many highbred and highstrung
collies, he did not fancy having his collar seized by a stranger. He
did not resent the act with snarls and a show of teeth, as in the case
of the beach comber. But he stiffened to offended dignity, and, with
a sudden jerk, freed himself from the little detaining hand.
Then, loftily, he stalked across to Gavin and thrust his muzzle
once more into the man's cupped palm. As clearly as by a
dictionary-ful of words, he had rebuked her familiarity and had shown
to whom he felt he owed sole allegiance.
While the girl was still staring in rueful indignation at this
snub from her dog, Brice found time and thought to stare with still
greater intentness up the tree, at a bunch of bristling fur which
occupied the first crotch and which glared wrathfully down at the
He made out the contour and bashed-in profile of a huge Persian
cat, silver-gray of hue, dense of coat, green of eye.
"So that's Simon Cameron?" he queried. "What a beauty! And what
a quaintly Oriental name you've chosen for him!"
"He is named," said the girl, still icily, "for a statesman my
parents admired. My brother says our Persian's hair is just the same
color as Simon Cameron's used to be. That's why we named him that.
You'll notice the cat has the beautifullest silvery gray hair—"
"Prematurely gray, I'm sure," put in Brice, civilly.
She looked at him, in doubt. But his face was grave. And she
turned to the task of coaxing the indignant Simon Cameron from his
"Simon Cameron always walks around the grounds with me, at
sunset," she explained, in intervals of cajoling the grumpy mass of
fluff to descend. "And he ran ahead of me, to-day, to the edge of the
path. That must have been when Bobby caught sight of him..."
"Come, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty!" she coaxed. "Do be a good little
cat, and come down. See, the dog can't get at you, now. He's being
The allurement of his mistress's voice produced no stirring effect
on the temperamental Simon Cameron. Beyond leaving the crotch and
edging mincingly downward, a yard or so, the Persian refused to obey
the crooning summons. Plastered flat against the tree trunk, some
nine feet above the ground, he miaued dolefully.
"Hold Bobby's collar," suggested Brice, "and I think I can get the
prematurely grizzled catling to earth."
The girl came over to where man and dog stood, and took Bobby
Burns by the collar. Brice crossed to the tree and looked upward at
the yowling Simon Cameron.
"Hello, you good little cat!" he hailed, cooingly. "Cats always
like to be called 'good,' you know. All of us are flattered when
we're praised for something we aren't. A dog doesn't care much about
being called 'good.' Because he knows he is. But a cat..."
As he talked, Gavin scratched gratingly on the tree trunk, and
gazed up in ostentatious admiration at the coy Simon Cameron. The
Persian, like all his kind, was foolishly open to admiration. Brice's
look, his crooning voice, his entertaining fashion of scratching the
tree for the cat's amusement all these proved a genuine lure. Down
the tree started Simon Cameron, moving backward, and halting
coquettishly at every few inches.
Gavin reached up and lifted the fluffy creature from the trunk,
cradling him in expert manner in the crook of one arm. Simon Cameron
forgot his fear and purred loudly, rubbing his snub-nose face against
his captor's sleeve.
"Don't feel too much flattered," adjured the girl. "He's like
that, with all strangers. As soon as he has known most people a day
or two, he'll have nothing to do with them."
"I know," assented Gavin. "That's a trick of Persian cats. They
have an inordinate interest in every one except the people they know.
Their idea of heaven is to be admired by a million strangers at a
time. If I'd had any tobacco-reek on me, Simon Cameron wouldn't have
let me hold him as long as this. Persian's hate tobacco."
He set the soothed animal down on the lawn, where, after one
scornful look at the tugging and helpless dog, Simon Cameron
proceeded to rub his arched back against the man's legs, thus
transferring a goodly number of fluffy gray hairs to Brice's shabby
trousers. Tiring of this, he minced off, affectedly, toward the
distant house that stood at the landward end of the sloping lawn.
As he set the cat down, Brice had stepped out of the shadows of
the grove, into the open. And now, not only his face, but his whole
body was clearly visible in the dying daylight. The girl's eyes ran
appraisingly over the worn clothes and the cracking and dusty shoes.
Brice felt, rather than saw, her appraisal. And he knew she was
contrasting his costume with his voice and his clean-shaven face. She
broke the moment of embarrassed silence by saying "You must be tired
after your long tramp, from Miami. Were you walking for fun and
exercise, or are you bound for any especial place?" He knew she was
fencing, that his clothes made her wonder if she ought not to offer
him some cash payment for finding her dog,—a reward she would never
have dreamed of offering on the strength of his manner and voice.
Also, it seemed, she was seeking some way of closing the interview
without dismissing him or walking away. And he answered with per fect
"No, I wasn't walking for exercise or fun. There are better and
easier ways of acquiring fun than by plodding for hours in the hot
sunshine. And of getting exercise, too. I was on my way to Homestead
or to some farming place along the line, where I might pick up a job."
"Yes. I could probably have gotten a place as dishwasher or even
as a 'bus' or porter, in one of the big Miami hotels," he pursued, "or
a billet with one of the dredging gangs in the harbor. But somehow
I'd rather do farm work of some sort. It seems less of a slump, when
a chap is down on his luck, than to go in for scrubbing or for
section-gang hustling. There are farms and citrus groves, all along
here, just back of the bay. And I'm looking for one of them where I
can get a decent day's work to do and a decent day's wages for doing
He spoke with an almost overdone earnestness. The girl was
watching him, attentively, a furrow between her straight brows.
Somehow, her level look made him uncomfortable. He continued, with a
shade less assurance:
"I was brought up on a farm, though I haven't been on one since I
was eighteen. I might have been better off if I'd stayed there.
Anyhow, when a man's prospects of starving are growing brighter every
day, a farm-job is about the pleasantest sort of work he can find."
"Starving!" she repeated, in something like contempt. "If you had
been in this region a little longer—say, long enough to pronounce the
name, 'Miami' as it's pronounced down here, instead of calling it
'Me-ah-mee,' as you did—if you'd been here longer, you'd know that
nobody need starve in Florida. Nobody who is willing to work. There's
the fishing, and the construction gangs, and the groves, and the
farms, and a million other ways of making a living. The weather lets
you sleep outdoors, if you have to. The..."
"I've done it," he chimed in. "Slept outdoors, I mean. Last
night, for instance. I slept very snugly indeed, under a Traveler
Tree in the gardens of the Royal Palm Hotel. There was a dance at the
hotel. I went to sleep, under the stars, to the lullaby of a corking
good orchestra. The only drawback was that a spooning couple who were
engineering a 'petting party,' almost sat down on my head, there in
the darkness. Not that I'd have minded being a settee for them. But
they might have told one of the watchmen about my being there. And
I'd have had to hunt other sleeping quarters."
She did not abate that look of quizzical appraisal. And again
Gavin Brice began to feel uncomfortable under her scrutiny.
"You have an orange grove, back yonder, haven't you?" he asked,
abruptly, nodding toward a landward stretch of ground shut off from
the lawn by a thickset hedge of oleander.
"How did you know?" she demanded in suspicion. "By this light you
couldn't possibly see—"
"Oddly enough," he said, in the pleasant drawling voice she was
learning to like in spite of her better judgment, "oddly enough, I was
born with a serviceable pair of nostrils. There is a scent of orange
blossoms hanging fairly strong in the air. It doesn't come from the
mangrove swamp behind me or from the highroad in front of your house
or from the big garden patch to the south of the lawn. So I made a
Sherlock Holmes guess that it must be over there to northward, and
pretty close. Besides, that's the only direction the Trade Winds
could bring the scent from."
Again, she was aware of a certain glibness in his tone,—a
glibness that annoyed her and at the same time piqued her curiosity.
"Yes," she said, none too cordially. "Our orange groves are
there. Why do you ask?"
"Only," he replied, "because where there are large citrus groves
on one side of a house and fairly big vegetable gardens on the other,
it means the need for a good bit of labor. And that may mean a chance
for a job. Or it may not. You'll pardon my suggesting it.
"My brother needs no more labor," she replied. "At least, I am
quite certain he doesn't. In fact, he has more men working here now
than he actually needs. I—I've heard him say so. Of course, I'll be
glad to ask him, when he comes back from town. And if you'd care to
leave your address—"
"Gladly," said Brice. "Any letter addressed to me, as 'Gavin
Brice, in care of Traveler Tree, rear gardens of Royal Palm Hotel,'
will reach me. Unless, of course, the night watchmen chance to root
me out. In that case, I'll leave word with them where mail may be
forwarded. In the meantime, it's getting pretty dark, and I don't
know this part of Dade County as well as I'd like to. So I'll be
starting on. If you don't mind, I'll cross your lawn, and take the
main road. It's easier going, at night than by way of the mangrove
swamp and the beach. Good night, Miss—"
"Wait!" she interposed, worry creeping into her sweet voice. "I—I
can't let you go like this. Do you really mean you have to sleep out
of doors and that you have no money? I don't want to be impertinent,
"'Nobody need starve in Florida,'" he quoted, gravely. "'Nobody
who is willing to work. The weather lets you sleep outdoors.' (In
which, the weather chimes harmoniously with my pocketbook.) And, as I
am extremely 'willing to work,' it follows that I can't possibly
starve. But I thank you for feeling concerned about me. It's a long
day since a woman has bothered her head whether I live or die. Good
night, again, Miss—"
A second time, she ignored his hint that she tell him her name.
Too much worried over his light words and the real need they seemed
to cover, to heed the subtler intent, she said, a little tremulously:
"I—I don't understand you, at all. Not that it is any business
of mine, of course. But I hate to think that any one is in need of
food or shelter. Your voice and your face and the way you talk—they
don't fit in with the rest of you. Such men as yourself don't drift,
penniless, through Lower Florida, looking for day-laborer jobs. I
"Every one who speaks decent English and yet is down-and-out," he
said, quietly, "isn't necessarily a tramp or a fugitive from justice.
And he doesn't need to be a man of mystery, either. Suppose, let's
say, a clerk in New York has been too ill, for a long time, to work.
Suppose illness has eaten all his savings, and that he doesn't care
to borrow, when he knows he may never be able to pay. Suppose his
doctor tells him he must go South, to get braced up, and to avoid a
New York February and March. Suppose the patient has only about money
enough to get here, and relies on finding something to do to keep him
in food and lodging. Well—there's nothing mysterious or especially
discreditable in that, is there? ... The dew is beginning to fall.
And I'm keeping you out here in the damp. Good night, Miss—Miss—"
"Standish," she supplied, but speaking absently, her mind still
perturbed at his plight. "My name is Standish. Claire Standish."
"Mine is Gavin Brice," he said. "Good night. Keep hold of Bobby
Burns's collar, till I'm well on my way. He may try to follow me.
Good-by, old chap," he added, bending down and taking the collie's
silken head affectionately between his hands. "You're a good dog, and
a good pal. But put the soft pedal on the temperamental stuff, when
you're near Simon Cameron. That's the best recipe for avoiding a
scratched nose. By the way, Miss Standish, don't encourage him to
roam around in the palmetto scrub, on your outings with him. The
rattlesnakes have gotten many a good dog, in Florida. He—"
"Mr. Brice!" she broke in. "If I offend you, I can't help it.
Won't you please let me—let me lend you enough money to keep you
going, till you get a good job? Please do! Of course, you can pay
me, as soon as—"
"'I have not found such faith,—no, not in Israel!'" quoted Brice,
a new note in his voice which somehow stirred the embarrassed girl's
heart. "You have only my bare word that I'm not a panhandler or a
crook. And yet you believe in me enough to—"
"You will let me?" she urged, eagerly. "Say you will! Say it."
"I'll make cleaner use of your faith," he returned, "by asking you
to say a good word for me to your brother, if ever I come back here
looking for a job. No, no!" he broke off, fiercely, before she could
answer. "I don't mean that. You must do nothing of the kind. Forget
I asked it."
With which amazing outburst, he turned on his heel, ran across the
lawn, leaped the low privet hedge which divided it from the coral
road, and made off at a swinging pace in the direction of Coconut
Grove and Miami.
"What a fool—and what a cur—a man can make of himself," he
muttered disgustedly as he strode along, without daring to look back
at the wondering little white-clad figure, watching him out of sight
around the bend, "when he gets to talking with a woman—a woman
with—with eyes like hers! They—why, they make me feel as if I was
in church! What sort of bungling novice am I, anyhow, for work like
With a grunt of self-contempt, he drove his hands deep into the
pockets of his shabby trousers and quickened his pace. His fingers
closed mechanically around a roll of bills, of very respectable size,
in the depths of his right-hand pocket. The gesture caused a litter of
small change to give forth a muffled jingle. A sense of shame crept
over the man, at the contact.
"She wanted to lend me money!" he muttered, half-aloud. "Money!
Not give it to me, as a beggar, but to lend it to me.... Her nose
has the funniest little tilt to it! And she can't be an inch over
five feet tall! ... I'm a wall-eyed idiot!"
He stood aside to let two cars pass him, one going in either
direction. The lamps of the car from the west, traveling east,
showed him for a moment the occupant of the car that was moving
westward. The brief ray shone upon a pair of shoulders as wide as a
steam radiator. They were clad in loose-fitting white silk. Above
them a thick golden beard caught the ray of shifting light. Then,
both cars had passed on, and Brice was resuming his trudge.
"Milo Standish!" he mused, looking back at the car as it vanished
in a cloudlet of white coral-dust. "Milo Standish! ... As big as two
elephants .... 'The bigger they are, the harder they fall.'"
The road curved, from the Standish estate, in almost a "C"
formation, before straightening out, a mile to the north, into the
main highway. Gavin Brice had just reached the end of the "C" when
there was a scurrying sound behind him, in a grapefruit grove to his
right. Something light and agile scrambled over the low coral-block
wall, and flung itself rapturously on him.
It was Bobby Burns.
The collie had suffered himself to be led indoors by the girl whom
he had never seen until that morning, and for whom, thus far, he had
formed no affection. But his wistful, deepset dark eyes had followed
Gavin Brice's receding form. He could not believe this dear new
friend meant to desert him. As Brice did not stop, nor even look
back, the collie waxed doubtful. And he tugged to be free. Claire
spoke gently to him, a slight quiver in her own voice, her dark eyes,
like his, fixed upon the dwindling dark speck on the dusky white
"No, Bobby!" she said, under her breath, as she petted the
restless head. "He won't come back. Let's forget all about it. We
both behaved foolishly, you and I, Bobby. And he —well, let's just
call him eccentric, and not think about him any more."
She drew the reluctant collie into the house, and closed the door.
But, a few minutes later, when her back chanced to be turned, and
when a maid came into the room leaving the door ajar, Bobby slipped
In another five seconds he was in the road, casting about for
Brice's trail. Finding it, he set off, at a hard gallop, nostrils
close to the ground. Having once been hit and bruised, in puppyhood,
by a motor car, the dog had a wholesome respect for such rapid and
ill-smelling vehicles. Thus, as he saw the lights and heard the
engine-purr of one of them, coming toward him, down the road, he
dodged back into the wayside hedge until it passed. Which is the
reason Milo Standish failed to see the dog he had been hunting for.
A little later, Brice's scent became so distinct that the collie
could abandon his nose-to-the-ground tactics and strike across
country, by dead-reckoning, guided not only by his nose but by the
sound of Gavin's steps. Then, in an access of delight, he burst upon
the plodding man.
"Why, Bobby!" exclaimed Brice, touched by the dog's rapture in
having found him again. "Why, Bobby Burns! What on earth made you
follow me? Don't you know I'm not your master? Don't you, Bobby?"
He was petting the frisking collie as he talked. But now he faced
"I've got to take you back to her, old man!" he informed the
highly interested dog. "You belong to her. And she'll worry about
you. I'll just take you into the dooryard or to the front lawn or
whatever it is, and tie you there, so some one will find you. I don't
want to get my plans all messed up by another talk with her, to-night.
It's a mean trick to play on you, after you've taken all the trouble
to follow me. But you're hers. After this rotten business is all
over, maybe I'll try to buy you. It's worth ninety per cent of your
value to have had you pick me out for your master. Any man with cash
enough can be a dog's owner, Bobby. But all the cash in the world
won't make him the dog's master without the dog's own consent. Ever
stop to think of that, Bobby?"
As he talked, half incoherently, to the delighted collie, Gavin
was retracing his way over the mile or so he had just traversed. He
grudged the extra steps. For the day had been long and full of
exercise. And he was more than comfortably tired. But he kept on,
wondering vexedly at the little throb of eagerness in his heart as
Claire Standish's home at last bulked dimly into view around the last
curve of the byroad.
Bobby Burns trotted happily beside him, reveling in the man's
occasional rambling words, as is the flattering way collies have when
they are talked to, familiarly, by the human they love. And so the
two neared the house, their padding footsteps noiseless in the soft
white dust of the road.
There were lights in several windows. One strong ray was cast
full across the side lawn, penetrating almost as far as the beginning
of the forest at the rear. Toward this vivid beam, Gavin bent his
steps, fumbling in his pocket as he went, for something with which to
tie Bobby to the nearest tree.
As he moved forward and left the road for the closecropped grass
of the lawn, he saw a dim white shadow advancing obliquely in his
direction. And, for an instant, his heartbeats quickened, ever so
slightly. Then, he was disgusted with his own fatuousness. For the
white form was double the size of Claire Standish. And he knew this
was her brother, crossing from the garage to a door of the house.
The big man swung along with the easy gait of perfect physical
strength. And as the window, whence flowed the light-ray, was
alongside the door he intended to enter, his journey toward the house
lay in the direct path of the ray.
Brice, in the darkness, just inside the gateway, stood moveless
and waited for him to traverse the hundred feet or so that remained
between him and the veranda. The collie fidgeted, at sight of the man
in white, and began to growl, inquiringly, far down in his throat.
Gavin patted Bobby Burns reassuringly on the head, to quiet him.
He was of no mind to introduce himself at the Standish home, a second
time, as the returner of a runaway dog. Wherefore, he sought to remain
unseen, and to wait with what patience he could until the householder
should have gone indoors.
Apparently, on reaching home, Standish had driven the car to the
garage and had pottered around there for some minutes before starting
for the house. He was carrying something loosely in one hand, and he
did not seem in any hurry.
"My friend," said Gavin, soundlessly, "if a girl like Claire
Standish was waiting for me, beyond, that shaft of light, I'd make
the trip in something better than no time at all. But then—she's not
my sister, thank the good Lord!"
He grinned at his own silly thoughts concerning the girl he had
talked to for so brief a time. Yet he found himself looking at her
elder brother with a certain reluctant friendliness, on her account.
Suddenly, the grin was wiped from his face, and he was tense from
head to foot.
Standish, on his way homeward, was strolling past a clump of dwarf
shrubbery. And, idly watching him, Gavin could have sworn that one
end of the shrubbery moved.
Then, he was no longer in doubt. The bit of darkness detached
itself from the rest of the shrubbery, as Milo lounged past, and it
sprang, catlike, at the unsuspecting man's back.
Into the path of light it leaped. In the same atom of time, Gavin
Brice shouted aloud in sharp warning, and dashed forward, the collie
at his side.
But he was fifty feet away. And his shout served only to make
Standish halt, staring about him.
It was then that the creature from the shrubbery made his spring.
He struck venomously at Standish, from behind. And Gavin could see,
in the striking hand, a glitter of steel.
Standish—warned perhaps by sound, perhaps by instinct—wheeled
half-way around. Thus the knifeblow missed its mark between his
shoulder-blades. Not the blade, but the fist which gripped it, smote
full on Standish's shoulder. The deflected point merely shore the
white coat from neck to waist.
There was no scope to strike again. And the assailant contented
himself with passing his free arm garrotingly around Standish's neck,
from behind, and leaping upward, bringing his knees into the small of
the victim's back.
Here evidently was no amateur slayer. For, even as the
knife-thrust missed its mark, he had resorted to the second ruse, and
before Standish could turn around far enough to avert it.
Down went the big man, under the strangle-hold and knee-purchase.
With a crash that knocked the breath out of him and dazed him, he
landed on his back, his head smiting the sward with a resounding
His adversary, once more, wasted not a jot of time. As Standish
struck ground, the man was upon him, knife again aloft, poised above
the helpless Milo's throat.
And it was then that Gavin Brice's flying feet brought him to the
As he ran he had heard a door open. And he knew his warning shout
had reached the ears of some one in the house,—perhaps of Claire.
But he had no time nor thought for anything, just then, except the
stark need of reaching Milo Standish before the knife could strike.
He launched himself, after the fashion of a football tackle,
straight for the descending arm. And, for a few seconds all three
men rolled and wallowed and fought in a jumble of flying arms and legs
Brice had been lucky enough or dextrous enough to catch the
knife-wielder's wrist and to wrench it far to one side, as it whizzed
downward. With his other hand he had groped for the slayer's throat.
Then, he found himself attacked with a maniac fury by the man
whose murderous purpose he had thwarted. Still gripping the
knife-wrist, he was sore put to it to fend off an avalanche of blows
from the other arm and of kicks from both of the assailant's deftly
Nor was his task made the easier by the fact that Milo Standish
had recovered from the momentary daze, and was slugging impartially at
both the men who rolled and tossed on top of him.
This, for a short but excessively busy space of moments. Then,
wriggling free of Milo's impeding and struggling bulk, Brice gained
the throat-hold he sought. Still holding to the ground the wrist of
the knifehand, he dug his supple fingers deep into the man's throat,
disregarding such blows and kicks as he could not ward off.
There was science in his ferocious onslaught. And his skilled
fingers had found the windpipe and the carotid artery as well. With
such force as Brice was able to exert, the other's breath was shut
off, while he was all but paralyzed by the digging pressure into his
Such a grip is well understood by Japanese athletes, though its
possibilities and method are unknown to the average Occidental.
Rightly applied, it is irresistible. Carried to its conclusion, it
spells sudden and agonizing death to its victim.
And Gavin Brice was carrying it to the conclusion, with all the
sinew and science of his trained arms.
The knifer's strength was gorilla-like. But that strength, at
every second, was rendered more and more futile. The man must have
realized it. For, all at once, he ceased his battery of kicks and
blows, and struggled frantically to tear free.
Each plunging motion merely intensified the pain and power of the
relentless throat-grip that pinioned him. And, strangling and
panic-struck, he became wilder in his fruitless efforts to wrench
loose. Then, deprived of breath and with his nerve-centers shaken, he
lost the power to strive.
It was the time for which Gavin had waited. With perfect ease,
now, he twisted the knife from the failing grasp, and, with his left
hand, he reinforced the throat-grip of his right. As he did so, he
got his legs under him and arose, dragging upward with him the all but
senseless body of his garroted foe.
It had been a pretty bit of work, from the start, and one upon
which his monkey-faced Japanese jui-jutsu instructor would have
lavished a grunt of approval.
He had conquered an armed and muscular enemy by his knowledge of
anatomy and by applying the simple grip he had learned. And now, the
heaving half-dead murderer was at his mercy.
Gavin swung the feebly twitching body out, more fully into the
streak of light from the house, noting, subconsciously that the light
ray was twice as broad as before, by reason of the door's standing
But, before he could concentrate his gaze on the man he held, he
saw several million other things. And all the several million were
multi-hued stars and bursting bombs.
The entire universe seemed to have exploded and to have chosen the
inside of his brain as the site for such annoying pyrotechnics. Dully
he was aware that his hands were loosening their death-grip and that
his arms were falling to his sides. Also, that his knees had turned
to hot tallow and were crumbling, under him.
None of these amazing phenomena struck him as at all interesting.
Indeed, nothing struck him as worth noting. Not even the display of
myriad shooting stars. It all seemed quite natural, and it all lasted
for the merest breath of time.
Through the universe of varicolored lights and explosions, he was
aware of a woman's cry. And, somehow, this pierced the mist of his
senses, and found its way to his heart. But only for an instant.
Then, instead of tumbling to earth, he felt himself sinking down,
uncountable miles, through a cool darkness. The dark was comforting,
after all that bothersome display of lights.
And, while he was still falling, he drifted into a dead sleep.
CHAPTER III. THE MOCKING BIRD
After centuries of unconsciousness, Gavin Brice began to return,
bit by bit, to his senses.
The first thing he knew was that the myriad shooting stars in his
head had changed somehow into a myriad shooting pains. He was in
torment. And he was deathly sick.
His trained brain forced itself to a semblance of sanity, and he
found himself piecing together vaguely the things that had happened to
him. He could remember seeing Milo Standish strolling toward the
veranda in the shaft of light from the window, then the black figure
which detached itself from the shrubbery and sprang on the unheeding
man, and his own attempt to turn aside the arm that wielded the knife.
But everything else was a blank.
Meanwhile, the countless shooting pains were merging into one
intolerable ache. Brice had no desire to stir or even to open his
eyes. The very thought of motion was abhorrent. The mere effort at
thinking was painful. So he lay still.
Presently, he was aware of something that touched his head. And he
wondered why the touch did not add to his hurt, but was soothing.
Even a finger's weight might have been expected to jar his battered
But there was no jar to this touch. Rather was it cooling and of
infinite comfort. And now he realized that it had been continuing for
Again he roused his rebellious brain to action, and knew at last
what the soothing touch must be. Some one was bathing his forehead
with cool water. Some one with a lightly magnetic touch. Some one
whose fingers held healing in their soft tips.
And, just above him, he could hear quick, light breathing,
breathing that was almost a sob. His unseen nurse was taking her job
not only seriously but compassionately. That was evident. It did not
jibe with Gavin's slight experience with trained nurses. Wherefore,
it puzzled him.
But, perplexity seemed to hurt his brain as much as did the effort
to piece together the shattered fragments of memory. So he forbore to
follow that train of thought. And, again, he strove to banish
mentality and to sink back into the merciful senselessness from which
youth and an iron-and-whalebone constitution were fighting to rouse
But, do what he would to prevent it, consciousness was creeping
more and more in upon him. For, now, he could not only follow the
motions of the wondrously gentle hand on his forehead, but he could
tell that his head was not on the ground. Instead, it was resting on
something warm, and it was elevated some inches above the grass. He
recalled a war-chromo of a wounded soldier whose head rested on the
knee of a Red Cross nurse,—a nurse who sat on the furrowed earth of
a five-color battlefield, where all real life army regulations forbade
her to set foot.
Was he that soldier? Was he still in the hell of the Flanders
trenches? He had thought the war was over, and that he was back in
America,—in America and on his way South on some odd and perilous
business whose nature he could not now recall.
Another few seconds of mental wandering, and he was himself again,
his mind functioning more and more clearly. With returning strength
of brain came curiosity. Where was he? How did he chance to be lying
here, his head in some sobbing woman's lap? It didn't make sense!
With instinctive caution, he parted his eyelids, ever so slightly,
and sought to peer upward through his thick lashes. The effort was
painful, but less so than he had feared. Already, through natural
buoyancy or else by reason of the unseen nurse's ministrations, the
throbbing ache was becoming almost bearable.
At first, his dazed eyes could make out nothing. Then he could
see, through his lashes, the velvety dark blue of the night sky and
the big white Southern stars shining through a soft cloud.
Inconsequentially, his vagrant mind recalled that, below Miami, the
Southern Cross is smudgily visible on the horizon, somewhere around
two in the morning. And he wondered if he could descry it, if that
luminous cloud were not in the way.
Then, he knew it was not a cloud which shimmered between his eyes
and the stars. It was a woman's filmy hair.
And the woman was bending down above him, as be lay with his head
on her knee. She was bending down, sobbing softly to herself, and
bathing his aching head with water from a bowl at her side.
He was minded to rouse himself and speak, or at least to get a
less elusive look at her shadowed face, when running footsteps
sounded from somewhere. And again by instinct, Brice shut his eyes
and lay moveless.
The footsteps were coming nearer. They were springy and rhythmic,
the footsteps of a powerful man.
Then came a panting voice out of the darkness
"Oh, there you are!" it exclaimed. "He got away. Got away,
clean. I reached the head of the path, not ten feet behind him.
But, in there, it's so black I couldn't see anything ahead of me.
And I had no light, worse luck! So he—"
A deep-throated growl interrupted him,—a growl so fierce and
menacing that Gavin once more halfparted his eyes, in sudden
From beside his feet, Bobby Burns was rising. The collie had
crouched there, evidently, with some idea of guarding Brice from
further harm. He did not seem to have resented the woman's
ministrations. But he was of no mind to let this man come any closer
to his stricken idol.
Brice was sore tempted to reach out his hand and give the collie a
reassuring pat and to thank him for the loyal guard he had been
keeping. Now, through the mists of memory, he recalled snarls and the
bruising contact of a furry body, during the battle he so, dimly
remembered, and that once his foe had cried, out, as though at the
impact of rending teeth.
Yes, Bobby Burns, presumably, had learned a lesson since his
interested but impersonal surveillance of Gavin's bout with the beach
comber, earlier in the afternoon. He had begun to learn that when
grown men come to a clinch, it is not mere play.
And Brice wanted to praise the gallant young dog for coming to his
help. But, as before, instinct and professional experience bade him
continue to "play dead."
"What's that?" he heard the man demand, in surprise, as Bobby
snarled again and stood threateningly between him and the prostrate
The woman answered. And at the first sound of her voice, full
memory rushed back on Gavin in a flood. He knew where he was, and
who was holding, his head on her knee. The knowledge thrilled him,
unaccountably. With mighty effort he held to his, pose of inert
"That's Bobby Burns," he heard Claire saying in reply to her
brother's first question. "He's guarding Mr. Brice. When I ran out
here with the water and the cloths, I found him standing above him.
"Brice?" snapped Milo Standish, glowering on the fallen man his
sister was brooding over. "Brice? Who's Brice? D'you mean that
chap? Lucky I got him, even if the other one did give me the slip!
Let me take a look at him. If I hadn't happened to be bringing the
monkey-wrench from the garage to fix that shelf-bolt in the study, I'd
never have been able to get even one of them. I yanked free of them,
while they were trying to down me, and I let this one have it with the
wrench. Before I could land on the other—"
"Milo!" she broke in, after several vain attempts to still his
vainglorious recital. "Milo! You've injured—maybe you've
killed—the man who saved you from being stabbed to death! Yet you—"
"What are you talking about?" he demanded, bewildered. "These two
men set on me in the dark, as I was coming from—"
"This man, here—Mr. Brice—" she flamed, "has saved you from
being killed. Oh, go and telephone for a doctor! Quickly! And send
one of the maids out here with my smelling salts. He—"
"Thanks!" returned her brother, making no move to obey. "But when
I phone, it'll be to the police. Not to a doctor. I don't know what
notion you may have gotten of this fracas. But—"
"Oh, we're wasting such precious time!" she cried. "Listen! I
heard a shout. I was on my way to the veranda to see what was
detaining you. For I had heard your car come in, quite a while before
that. I opened the door. And I was just in time to see some man
spring on you, with a knife in his hand. Then Mr. Brice came running
from the gateway, just as the man threw you down and lifted his knife
to stab you. Mr. Brice dragged him away from you and throttled him,
and knocked the knife out of his hand. I could see it ever so
plainly. For it was all in that big patch of light. Just like a
scene on a stage. Then, Mr. Brice got to his feet, and swung the man
to one side, by the throat. And as he did, you jumped up, too, and
hit him on the head with that miserable wrench. As he fell, I could
see the other man stagger off toward the path. He was so weak, at
first, he could hardly move. I cried out to you, but you were so busy
glaring down at the man who had saved your life that you didn't think
to start after the other one till he had gotten strength enough to
escape from you. Then I went for water to—"
"Good Lord!" groaned Standish, agape. "You're—you're sure—dead
sure you're right?"
"Sure?" she echoed, indignantly. "Of course I'm sure. I—"
"Hold that measly dog's collar," he broke in. "So! I don't care
to be bitten. I've had my share of knockabout stuff, for one day."
Stooping, he picked up Brice as easily as though Gavin had been a
baby, and with rough tenderness carried him toward the house.
"There are a lot of things, about all this, that I don't
understand," he continued, irritably, as Claire and the still
growling but tight-held Bobby followed him to the veranda. "For
instance, how that dog happens to be here and trying to protect a
total stranger. For, Bobby only got to Miami, from New Jersey, by
this morning's train. He can't possibly know this man. That's one
thing. Another is, how this—Brice, did you say his name
is?—happened to be Johnny-on-the-spot when the other chap tried to
knife me. And how you happen to know him by name. He's dressed more
like a day-laborer than like any one you'd be likely to meet .... But
all that can wait. The thing now is to find how badly he's hurt."
They had reached the veranda, and Standish carried his burden
through an open doorway, which was blocked by a knot of excitedly
inquisitive servants. A sharp word from Standish sent them
whisperingly back to the kitchen regions. Milo laid Brice down on a
wicker couch in the broad, flagged hallway, and ran his fingers over
the bruised head.
Gavin could hear Claire, in a nearby room, telephoning.
"Hold on, there!" called Standish, as his sister gave the operator
a number. "Wait! As well as I can tell, at a glance, there doesn't
seem to be any fracture. He's just knocked out. That's all. A mild
concussion of the brain, I should think. Don't call a doctor, unless
it turns out to be more serious. It's bad enough for the servants to
be all stirred up like this, and to blab—as they're certain to-
-without letting a doctor in on it, too. The less talk we cause, the
Reluctantly, Claire came away from the telephone and approached
"You're sure?" she asked, in doubt.
"I've had some experience with this sort of thing, on the other
side," he answered. "The man will come to himself in another few
minutes. I've loosened his collar and belt and shoelaces. He—"
"Have you any idea who could have tried to kill you?" she asked,
"Yes!" he made sullen answer. "And so have you. Let it go at
"You—you think it was one of—?"
"Hush!" he ordered, uneasily. "This fellow may not be quite as
unconscious as he looks. Sometimes, people get their hearing back,
before they open their eyes. Come into the library, a minute. I want
to speak to you. Oh, don't look like that, about leaving him alone!
He'll be all right, I tell you! His pulse is coming back, strong.
Come in here."
He laid one big arm on her slight shoulder and led her,
half-forcibly, into the adjoining room. Thence, Gavin could hear the
rumble of his deep voice. But he could catch no word the man said,
though once he heard Claire speak in vehement excitement, and could
hear Milo's harsh interruption and his command that she lower her
Presently, the two came back into the hall. As Standish neared
the couch, Gavin Brice opened his eyes, with considerable effort, and
blinked dazedly up at the gigantic figure in the torn and muddy white
Then Brice's blinking gaze drifted to Claire, as she stood, pale
and big-eyed, above him. He essayed a feeble smile of recognition,
and let his glance wander in well-acted amazement about the
"Feeling better?" queried Milo. "Here, drink this."
Gavin essayed to speak. His pose was not wholly assumed. For his
head still swam and was intolerably painful.
He sipped at the brandy which Standish held to his sagging lips.
And, glancing toward Claire, he smiled, a somewhat wavery and wan
"Don't try to say anything!" she begged. "Wait till you are
"I'm I'm all right," he assured her, albeit rather shakily, his
voice seeming to come from a distance. "I got a rap over the head.
And it put me out, for a while. But—I'm collecting the pieces.
I'll be as good as—as new, in a few minutes."
The fragments of dialogue between brother and sister had
supplemented his returning memory. Mentally, he was himself again,
keen, secretive, alert, every bit of him warily on guard. But he
cursed the fact that Standish had drawn Claire into the library, out
of earshot, when he spoke of the man who had attacked him.
Then, with a queer revulsion of feeling, he cursed himself for an
eavesdropper, and was ashamed of having listened at all. For the first
time, he began to hate the errand that had brought him to Florida.
Bobby Burns caused a mild diversion, as Brice's voice trailed
away. At Gavin's first word, the collie sprang from his
self-appointed guard-post at the foot of the couch, and came dancing
up to the convalescent man, thrusting his cold nose rapturously
against Brice's face, trying to lick his cheek, whimpering in joy at
his idol's recovery.
With much effort Gavin managed to stroke the wrigglingly active
head, and to say a reassuring word to his worshiper. Then, glancing
again at Claire, he explained:
"I'd done about a mile toward Miami when he overtook me. There was
no use in trying to send him home. So I brought him. Just as we got
to the gate, here—"
"I know," intervened Claire, eager to spare him the effort of
speech. "I saw. It was splendid of you, Mr. Brice! My brother and
I are in your debt for more than we can ever hope to pay."
"Nonsense!" he protested. "I made a botch of the whole thing. I
"No," denied Milo. "It was I who made a botch of it. I owe you
not only my life but an apology. It was my blow, not the other man's,
that knocked you out. I misunderstood, and—"
"That's all right!" declared Gavin. "In the dim light it's a
miracle we didn't all of us slug the wrong men. I—"
He stopped. Claire had been working over something on a table
behind him. Now she came forward with a cold compress for his
abraded scalp. Skillfully, she applied it, her dainty fingers
"Red Cross?" asked Brice, as she worked.
"Just a six-month nursing course, during the war," she said,
modestly, adding: "I didn't get across."
"I'm sorry," said Gavin. "I mean, for the poor chaps who might
have profited by such clever bandaging .... Yes, that's a very dull
and heavy compliment. I know it. But—there's a lot of gratitude
behind it. You've made this throbbing old head of mine feel ever so
much better, Miss Standish."
Milo was looking bewilderedly from one to the other, as if trying
to understand how this ill-clad man chanced to be on such terms of
acquaintanceship with his fastidious little sister. Claire read his
look of inquiry, and said:
"Mr. Brice found Bobby Burns, this afternoon, and brought him home
to me. It was nice of him, wasn't it? For it took him ever so far
out of his way."
Gavin noted that she made no mention of his having come to the
Standish home by way of the hidden path. It seemed to him that she
gave him a glance of covert appeal, as though beseeching him not to
mention it. He nodded, ever so slightly, and took up the narrative,
as she paused for words.
"I saw Miss Standish and yourself, at Miami, this morning," said
he, "and the collie, here, on the back seat of your car. Then, this
afternoon, as I was walking out in this direction, I saw the dog
again. I recognized him, and I guessed he had strayed. So he and I
made friends. And as we were strolling along together, we met Miss
Standish. At least, I met her. Bobby met a prematurely gray Persian
cat, with the dreamy Bagdad name of 'Simon Cameron.' By the time the
dog and cat could be sorted out from each other—"
"Oh, I see!" laughed Milo. "And I don't envy you the job of
sorting them. It was mighty kind of you to—"
He broke off and added, with a tinge of anxiety:
"You say you happened to be walking near here. Are you a neighbor
"Not yet," answered Gavin, with almost exaggerated simplicity.
"But I was hoping to be. You see I was out looking for a job in this
"A job?" repeated Milo, then, suspiciously: "Why in this
neighborhood, rather than any other? You say you were at Miami—"
"Because this chanced to be the neighborhood I was wandering in,"
replied Gavin. "As I explained to Miss Standish, I'd rather do some
kind of outdoor work. Preferably farm work. That's why I left Miami.
There seemed to be lots of farms and groves, hereabouts."
"Yet you were on your way back toward Miami, when Bobby overtook
you? Rather a long walk, for—"
"A long walk," gravely agreed Brice. "But safer sleeping quarters
when one gets there. Up North, one can take a chance, and sleep in
the open, almost anywhere except on a yellow-jacket's nest. Down
here, I've heard, rattlesnakes are apt to stray in upon one's
slumbers. Out in the country, at least. There aren't any
rattlesnakes in the Royal Palm's gardens. Besides, there's music, and
there's the fragrance of night jasmine. Altogether, it's worth the
difference of ten or twelve miles of tramping."
"You're staying at the Royal Palm, then?"
"Near it," corrected Brice. "To be exact, in the darkest corner
of its big gardens. The turf is soft and springy. The solitude is
perfect, too—unless some nightwatchman gets too vigilant."
He spoke lightly, even airily, through his pain and weakness. But,
as before, his every faculty was on guard. A born and trained expert
in reading human nature, he felt this giant somehow suspected him and
was trying to trap him in an inaccuracy. Wherefore, he fenced,
verbally, calmly confident he could outpoint his clumsier antagonist.
"You don't look like the kind of man who need sleep out of doors,"
replied Standish, speaking slowly, as one who chooses his every word
with care, and with his cold blue eyes unobtrusively scanning Gavin's
battered face. "That's the bedroom for bums. You aren't a bum. Even
if your manner, and the way you fought out yonder, didn't prove that.
A bum doesn't walk all this way and back, on a hot day, unless for a
handout. And you—"
"But a handout is just what I asked for," Gavin caught him up.
"When I brought Bobby Burns back I traded on the trifling little
service by asking Miss Standish if I could get a job here. It was
impertinent of me, I know. And I was sorry as soon as I'd done it.
But she told me, in effect, that you were 'firing, not hiring.' So
"Why did you want a job with me?" insisted Standish. "Rather than
with any of a dozen farmers or country house people along here?"
And, this time, any fool could have read the stark suspicion in
his tone and in the hard blue eyes.
"For several reasons," said Brice, coolly. "In the first place, I
had brought home your dog. In the second, I had taken a fancy to him,
as he had to me, and it would be pleasant working at a place where I
could be with such a chum. In the third place, Miss Standish was kind
enough to say pretty much the same things about me that you've just
said. She knew I wasn't a tramp, who might be expected to decamp with
the lawn-mower or the spoons. Another landowner might not have been
so complimentary, when I applied for work and had no references. In
the fourth, you seem to have a larger and more pretentious place here
than most of your near neighbors. I—I can't think of any better
reasons, just now."
"H'm!" mused Standish, frowning down on the recumbent man, and
then looking across in perplexity at Claire.
What he read in the girl's eyes seemed to shame him, just a
little. For, as he turned back to Gavin, there was an apologetic
aspect on his bearded face. Brice decided to force the playing.
Before his host could speak or Claire could interfere, he rose to a
sitting position, with some effort and more pain, and, clutching the
head of the couch, lurched to his feet.
"No, no!" called Claire, running forward to support him as he
swayed a bit. "Don't try to stand! Lie down again! You're as white
as a ghost."
But Gavin drew courteously away from her supporting arm and faced
"I can only thank you," said he, "for patching me up so well. I'm
a lot better, now. And I've a long way to go. So, I'll be starting.
Thanks, again, both of you. I'm sorry to have put you to so much
bother." He reeled, cleverly, caught at the couch-head again, and
took an uncertain step toward the door. But now, not only Claire but
her brother barred his way.
"Don't be an idiot!" stormed Milo. "Why, man, you couldn't walk a
hundred yards, with that groggy head on your shoulders! You're all
beaten up. You'll be lucky if you're on your feet in another three
days. What sort of cur do you think I am, to let you go like this,
after all you've done for me, to-night? You'll stay with us till
to-morrow, anyhow. And then, if you still insist on going back to
Miami, I'll take you there in the car. But you're not going a step
from here, to-night. I—"
Gavin strove to mutter a word of disclaimer, to take another
wavering stride toward the front door. But his knees gave away under
him. He swayed forward, and must have fallen, had not Milo Standish
"Here," Milo bade his sister, as he laid the limp body back on the
couch. "Go and tell the maids to get the gray room ready as quickly
as possible. I'll carry him up there. It was rotten of me to go on
catechizing him, like that, and letting him see he was unwelcome. But
for him, I'd be—"
"Yes," answered Claire, over her shoulder, as she hurried on her
errand. "It was 'rotten.' And more than that. I kept trying to
signal you to stop. You'll you'll give him work, here, won't you,
"We'll talk about that, afterward," he said, ungraciously. "I
suppose it's the only thing a white man can do, after the chap risked
his life for me, to-night. But I'd rather give him ten times his
wages—money to get out and keep out."
"Thanks, neighbor!" said Brice, to himself, from the depths of his
stage-faint. "I've no doubt you would. But the cards are running the
Again, his eyes apparently shut, he watched through slitted lids
the progress of Claire, as she passed out of the hall, toward the
kitchen quarters. She was leading the reluctant Bobby Burns away, by
the collar. Standish was just behind her, and had his back turned to
Gavin. But he glanced at him, suddenly, over his shoulder, and then
strode swiftly forward to close the door which Claire had left open
behind her on her way to the kitchen wing of the house.
Something in the big man's action aroused in Brice the mystic
sixth sense he had been at much pains to develop,—a sense which
often enabled him to guess instinctively at an opponent's next
probable move. As Milo took his first step toward the open door,
Brice went into action.
Both hands slipped into his pockets, and out again. As he
withdrew them, one hand held his battered but patently solid gold
watch. The other gripped his roll of bills and as much of his small
change as he had been able to scoop up in one rapid grab.
On the stand at the head of the couch reposed a fat tobacco jar
and pipes. The jar was more than half full. Into it, Gavin Brice
dumped his valuables, and with a clawing motion, scraped a handful of
loose tobacco over them. Then he returned to his former inertly
The whole maneuver had not occupied three seconds. And, by the
time Standish had the door closed and had started back toward the
couch, the watch and money were safe-hidden. At that, there had been
little enough time to spare. It had been a matter of touch-and-go.
Nothing but the odd look he had read in Milo's face as Standish had
glanced at him over his shoulder, would have led Brice to take such a
chance. But, all at once, it had seemed a matter of stark necessity.
The narrow escape from detection set his strained nerves to
twitching. He muttered to himself:
"Come along then, you man-mountain! You wanted to get your sister
out of the way, so you could go through my clothes and see if I was
lying about being flat broke and if I had any incriminating papers on
me. Come along, and search! If I hadn't brains enough to fool a
chucklehead, like you, I'd go out of the business and take in
back-stairs to clean!"
Milo was approaching the couch, moving with a stealthy lightness,
unusual in so large a man. Leaning over the supposedly unconscious
Gavin, he ran his fingers deftly through Brice's several pockets. In
only two was he lucky to find anything.
From a trousers pocket he exhumed seventy-eight cents. From the
inner pocket of the coat he extracted a card, postmarked "New York
City," and addressed to "Gavin Brice, General Delivery, Miami,
Florida." The postcard was inscribed, in a scrawling hand:
"Good time and good luck and good health to you, from us all. Jack
Gavin knew well the contents of the card, having written it and
mailed it to himself on the eve of his departure from the North. It
was as mild and noncommittal a form of identification as he could well
Standish read the banal message on the soiled card, then restored
cash and postal to their respective pockets. After which he stood
frowning down in puzzled conjecture on the moveless Gavin.
"Well, old chap!" soliloquized Brice. "If that evidence doesn't
back up all I said about myself, nothing will. But, for the Lord's
sake, don't help yourself to a pipeful of tobacco, till I have time to
plant the loot deeper in the jar!"
He heard the light footfalls of women, upstairs, where Claire, in
person, seemed to be superintending the arrangement of his room. At
the sound, a twinge of compunction swept Brice. But, at memory of her
brother's stealthy ransacking of an unconscious guest's clothes, the
feeling passed, leaving only a warm battlethrill.
Drowsily, he opened his eyes, and stared with blank wonder up at
Milo. Then, shamefacedly, he mumbled:
"I—I hope I wasn't baby enough to—to keel over, Mr. Standish?"
"That's all right," answered Milo. "It was my fault. I was a
boor. And, very rightly, you decided you didn't care to stay any
longer under my roof. But your strength wasn't up to your spirit. So
you fainted. I want to apologize for speaking as I did. I'm mighty
grateful to you, for your service to me, this evening. And my sister
and I want you to stay on here, for the present. When you're feeling
more like yourself, we'll have a chat about that job. I think we can
fix it, all right. Nothing big, of course. Nothing really worth your
while. But it may serve as a stopgap, till you get a chance to look
"If nothing better turns up," suggested Brice, with a weak effort
at lightness, "you might hire me as a bodyguard."
"As a—a what?" snapped Milo, in sharp suspicion, the geniality
wiped from face and voice with ludicrous suddenness. "A—?"
"As a bodyguard," repeated Gavin, not seeming to note the change
in his host. "If you're in the habit of being set upon, often, as you
were, this evening you'll be better off with a good husky chap to act
"Oh, that?" scoffed Milo, in ponderous contempt. "That was just
some panhandler, who thought he might knock me over, from behind, and
get my watch and wallet. The same thing isn't likely to happen again
in a century. Florida is the most law-abiding State in the Union.
And Dade County is perhaps the most law-abiding part of Florida. One
would need a bodyguard in New York City, more than here. There have
been a lot of holdups there."
Gavin did not reply. His silence seemed to annoy Milo who burst
forth again, this time with a tinge of open amusement in his contempt:
"Besides—even if there were assassins lurking behind every bunch
of palmetto scrub, in the county—do you honestly think a man of your
size could do very much toward protecting me? I'm not bragging. But
I'm counted one of the strongest men in—"
"To-night," said Brice, drily, "I managed to be of some slight
use. Pardon my mentioning it. If I hadn't been there, you'd be
carrying eight inches of cold steel, between your shoulders.
And—pardon me, again—if you'd had the sense to stay out of the
squabble a second or so longer, the man who tackled you would be
either in jail or in the morgue, by this time. I'm not oversized.
But neither is a stick of dynamite. An automatic pistol isn't
anywhere as big as an old-fashioned blunderbuss. But it can outshoot
and outkill the blunderbuss, with very little bother. Think it over.
And, while you're thinking, stop to think, also, that a 'panhandler'
doesn't do his work with a knife. He doesn't try to stab a man to
death, for the sake of the few dollars the victim may happen to have
in his pockets. That sort of thing calls for pluck and iron nerves
and physical strength. If a panhandler had those, he wouldn't be a
panhandler. Any more than that chap, to-night, was a panhandler. My
idea of acting as a bodyguard for you isn't bad. Think it over. You
seem to need one."
"Why do you say that?" demanded Milo, in one of his recurrent
flashes of suspicion.
"Because," said Gavin, "we're living in the twentieth century and
in real life, not in the dark ages and in a dime novel. Nowadays, a
man doesn't risk capital punishment, lightly, for the fun of springing
on a total stranger, in the dark, with a razor-edge knife. Mr.
Standish, no man does a thing like that to a stranger, or without some
mighty motive. It is no business of mine to ask that motive or to
horn in on your private affairs. And I don't care to. But, from your
looks, you're no fool. You know, as well as I do, that that was no
panhandler or even a highwayman. It was an enemy whose motive for
wanting to murder you, silently and surely, was strong enough to make
him willing to risk death or capture. Now, when you say you don't
need a bodyguard—Well, it's your own business, of course. Let it go
at that, if you like."
Long and silently Milo Standish looked down at the nonchalant
invalid. Above, the sounds of women's steps and an occasional snatch
of a sentence could be heard. At last, Milo spoke.
"You are right," said he, very slowly, and as if measuring his
every word. "You are right. There are one or two men who would like
to get this land and this house and—and other possessions of mine.
There is no reason for going into particulars that wouldn't interest
you. Take my word. Those reasons are potent. I have reason to
suspect that the assault on me, this evening, is concerned with their
general plan to get rid of me. Perhaps—perhaps you're right, about
my need of a bodyguard. Though it's a humiliating thing for a grown
man—especially a man of my size and strength—to confess. We'll talk
it over, tomorrow, if you are well enough."
Brice nodded, absently, as if wearied with the exertion of their
talk. His eyes had left Milo's, and had concentrated on the man's big
and hairy hands. As Milo spoke of the supposititious criminals who
desired his possessions enough to do murder for them, his fists
clenched, tightly. And to Brice's memory came a wise old adage:
"When you think a man is lying to you, don't watch his face. Any
poker-player can make his face a mask. Watch his hands. Ten to one,
if he is lying, he'll clench them."
Brice noted the tightening of the heavy fists. And he was
convinced. Yet, he told himself, in disgust, that even a child of
six would scarce have needed such confirmation that the clumsily
blurted tale was a lie.
He nodded again, as Milo looked at him with a shade of anxiety.
The momentary silence was broken by footsteps on the stairs.
Claire was descending. Brice gathered his feet under him and sat
upright. It was easier, now, to do this, and his head had recovered
its feeling of normality, though it still ached ferociously.
At the same instant, through the open doorway, from across the
lawn in the direction of the secret path, came the quaveringly sweet
trill of a mocking bird's song. Despite himself, Gavin's glance
turned toward the doorway.
"That's just a mocker," Milo explained, loudly, his face reddening
as he looked in perturbation at his guest. "Sweet, isn't he? They
often sing, off and on, for an hour or two after dark."
"I know they do," said Gavin (though he did not say it aloud).
"But in Florida, the very earliest mocking bird doesn't sing till
around the first of March. And this isn't quite the middle of
February. There's not a mocking bird on the Peninsula that is
singing, yet. The very dulcet whistler, out yonder, ought to make a
closer study of ornithology. He—"
Brice's unspoken thought was shattered. For, unnoticed by him,
Milo Standish had drawn forth, with tender care, an exquisitely carved
and colored meerschaum pipe from a case on the smoking-stand, and was
picking up the fat tobacco jar.
CHAPTER IV. THE STRANGER FROM NOWHERE
For a moment, Brice stared agape and helplessly flustered, as
Standish proceeded to thrust his meerschaum's rich-hued bowl into the
tobacco jar. Then, apparently galvanized into action by the approach
of Claire from the stairway, he stepped rapidly forward to meet her.
As though his shaky powers were not equal to the task he reeled,
lurched with all his might against the unprepared Standish and, to
regain his balance, took two plunging steps forward.
He had struck Milo at such an angle as to rap the latter's right
elbow with a numbing force that sent the pipe flying half way across
the hall. The tobacco jar must have gone too, had not one of Gavin's
outflung hands caught it in mid-air, as a quarterback might catch a
Unable to recover balance and to check his own momentum. Brice
scrambled awkwardly forward. One stamping heel landed full on the
fallen meerschaum, flattening and crumbling the beautiful pipe into a
smear of shapeless clay-fragments.
At the sight. Milo Standish swore loudly and came charging
forward in a belated hope of saving his beloved pipe from
destruction. The purchase of that meerschaum had been a joy to Milo.
Its coloring had been a long and careful process. And now, this
bungler had smashed it into nothingness!
Down on hands and knees went the big man, fumbling at the
fragments. Claire, knowing how her brother valued the pipe, ran to
his side in eager sympathy.
Gavin Brice came to a sliding standstill against a heavy
hall-table. On this he leaned heavily for a moment or so above the
tobacco jar he had so luckily salvaged from the wreckage. His back to
the preoccupied couple he flashed his sensitive fingers into the jar,
collecting and thrusting into his pockets the watch and the thick roll
of bills and as much of the small change as his fast-groping
fingertips could locate.
By the time Milo looked up in impotent wrath from his inspection
of the ruined meerschaum. Gavin had turned toward him and was
babbling a torrent of apology for his own awkwardness. Milo was
glumly silent as the contrite words beat about his ears. But Claire,
shamed by her brother's ungraciousness, spoke up courteously to
relieve the visitor's dire embarrassment.
"Please don't be unhappy about it. Mr. Brice," she begged. "It
was just an accident. It couldn't be helped. I'm sure my brother—"
"But—" stammered Gavin.
"Oh, it's all right!" grumbled Milo. scooping up the handful of
crushed meerschaum. "Let it go at that. I—"
Again. the mocking bird notes fluted forth through the early
evening silences, the melody coming as before from the direction of
the grove's hidden path. Milo stopped short in his sulky speech.
Brother and sister exchanged a swift glance. Then Standish got to
his feet and approached Gavin.
"Here we've kept you up and around when you're still too weak to
move without help!" he said in very badly done geniality. "Take my arm
and I'll help you upstairs. Your room's all ready for you. If you'd
rather I can carry you. How about it?"
But a perverse imp of mischief entered Gavin Brice's aching head.
"I'm all right now," he protested. "I feel fifty per cent better.
I'd much rather stay down here with you and Miss Standish for a
while, if you don't mind. My nerves are a bit jumpy from that crack
over the skull, and I'd like them to quiet down before I go to bed."
Again. he was aware of that look of covert anxiety. between
sister and brother. Claire's big eyes strayed involuntarily toward
the front door. And her lips parted for some word of urgence. But
before she could speak. Milo laughed loudly and caught Gavin by the
"You've got pluck, Brice!" he cried admiringly. "You're ashamed
to give up and go to bed. But you're going just the same. You're
going to get a good night's rest. I don't intend to have you fall
sick. from that tap I gave you with the wrench. Come on! I'll bring
you some fresh dressings for your head by the time you're undressed."
As he talked he passed one huge arm around Gavin and carried,
rather than led, him to the stairway.
"Good night, Mr. Brice," called Claire from near the doorway. "I
do hope your head will be ever so much better in the morning. If you
want anything in the night. there's a call-bell I've put beside your
Once more a dizzy weakness seemed to have overcome Gavin. For
after a single attempt at resistance. he swayed and hung heavy on
Standish's supporting arm. He made shift to mumble a dazed good night
to Claire. Then he suffered Milo to support him up the stairs and
along the wide upper hall to the open doorway of a bedroom.
Even at the threshold he seemed too uncertain of his footing to
cross the soft-lit room alone. And Milo supported him to the bed.
Gavin slumped heavily upon the side of it, his aching head in his
hands. Then, as if with much effort, he lay down, burying his face in
Milo had been watching him with growing impatience to be gone. Now
he said cheerily:
"That's all right, old chap! Lie still for a while. I'll be up
in a few minutes to help you undress."
Standish was hurrying from the room and closing the door behind
him. even as he spoke. With the last word the door shut and Gavin
could hear the big man's footsteps hastening along the upper hall
toward the stair-head.
Brice gave him a bare thirty seconds' start. Then, rising with
strange energy for so dazed and broken an invalid, he left the room
and followed him toward the head of the stairs. His light footfall was
soundless on the matting as he went.
He reached the top of the stairs just as Milo arrived at the
bottom. Claire was standing in the veranda doorway shading her eyes
and peering out into the darkness. But at sound of her brother's
advancing tread she turned and ran back to him, meeting him as he
reached the bottom of the stair and clasping both hands anxiously
about his big forearm.
She seemed about to break out in excited. even frightened speech,
when chancing to raise her eyes. she saw Gavin Brice calmly
descending from the hall above. At sight of him her eyes dilated.
Milo had begun to speak. She put one hand warningly across her
brother's bearded mouth. At the same moment Gavin, halting midway on
the stairs, said with deprecatory meekness:
"You didn't tell me what time to be ready for breakfast. I'd hate
to be late and—"
He got no further. Nor did he seek to. His ears had been
straining to make certain of the ever approaching sound of footsteps
across the lawn. Now an impatient tread echoed on the veranda, and a
man's figure blocked the doorway.
The newcomer was slender, graceful, with the form of an athletic
boy rather than of a mature man. He was pallid and black eyed. His
face had a classic beauty which, on second glance, was marred by an
almost snakelike aspect of the small black eyes and a sinister smile
which seemed to hover eternally around the thin lips. His whole
bearing suggested something serpentine in its grace and a smoothly
So much the first glimpse told Brice as he stood thereon the
stairs and surveyed the doorway. The second look showed him the man
was clad in a strikingly ornate yachting costume. Gavin's mind, ever
taught to dissect trifles, noted that in spite of his yachtsman-garb
the stranger's face was untanned, and that his long slender hands with
their supersensitive fingers were as white and well-cared-for as a
Yachting, in Florida waters at any time of year, means either a
thick coat of tan or an exaggerated sunburn. This yachtsman had
Scarce taller than a lad of fifteen, yet his slender figure was
sinuous in its every line, and its grace betokened much wiry
strength. His face was that of a man in the early thirties,—all but
his eyes. They looked as old as the Sphinx's.
He stood for an instant peering into the room, trying to focus his
night-accustomed eyes to the light. Evidently the first objects he
saw clearly were Milo and Claire standing with their backs to him as
they stared upward in blank dismay at the guest they had thought
safely disposed of for the night.
"Well?" queried the man at the door, and at sound of his silken.
bantering voice. brother and sister spun about in surprise. to face
"Well?" he repeated, and now there was a touch of cold rebuke in
the silken tones. "Is this the way you keep a lookout for the
signals? I might very well have walked in on a convention of half of
Dade County, for all the guard that was kept. I compliment—"
And now he broke off short in his sneering reproof, as his eyes
chanced upon Gavin half way down the stairs.
For a second or more no one spoke or moved. Claire and her
brother had an absurdly shamefaced appearance of two bad children
caught in mischief by a stern and much feared teacher. Into the black
depths of the stranger's eyes flickered a sudden glint like that of a
striking rattlesnake's. But at once his face was a slightly-smiling
mask once more. And Gavin was left doubting whether or not he had
really seen that momentary gleam of murder behind the smiling eyes.
It was Claire who first recovered herself.
"Good evening. Rodney," she said. with a graciousness which
all-but hid her evident nerve strain. "You stole in on us so
suddenly you startled me. Mr. Brice, this is Mr. Rodney Hade."
As Gavin bowed civilly and as Hade returned the salutation with
his eternal smile. Milo Standish came sufficiently out of his own
shock of astonishment to follow his sister's mode of greeting the new
visitor. With the same forced joviality he had used in coercing Brice
to go to bed, he sauntered over to the smiling Hade, exclaiming:
"Why, hello, old man! Where did you blow in from? You must have
come across from your house on foot. I didn't hear the car .... I
want you to know Brice here. I was tackled by a holdup man outside
yonder a while ago. And he'd have gotten me too, if Brice hadn't
sailed into him. In the scrimmage I made a fool of myself as usual,
and slugged the wrong man with a monkey wrench. Poor Brice's reward
for saving my life. was a broken head. He's staying the night with
The big man had spoken glibly, but with a nervousness which, more
and more, cropped out through his noisy joviality. Now, under the
coldly unwavering smile of Hade's snakelike eyes, he stammered, and
his booming voice trailed away to a mumble. Again, Claire sought to
mend the rickety situation. But now Gavin Brice forestalled her.
Passing one hand over his bandaged forehead, he said:
"If you'll forgive me having butted in. again. I'll go up to my
room. I'm pretty shaky, you see. I just wanted to know what time
breakfast is to be, and if I can borrow one of your brother's razors
in the morning."
"Breakfast is at seven o'clock," answered Claire. "That's a
barbarously early hour, I suppose for a New Yorker like you. But down
here from six to ten is the glorious part of the day. Besides, we're
farmers you know. Don't bother to try to wake so early, please. I'll
have your breakfast sent up to you. Good night."
"I'll look in on you before I go to bed," called Milo. after him
as he started up the stairs for the second time. "And I'll see that
shaving things are left in your bathroom. Good night."
Hade said nothing, but continued to pierce the unbidden guest with
those gimlet-like smiling black eyes of his. His face was
expressionless. Gavin returned to the upper hall and walked with
needless heaviness toward the room assigned to him. Reaching its door
he opened and then shut it loudly, himself remaining in the hallway.
Scarce had the door slammed when he heard. from below Rodney Hade's
voice raised in the sharp question:
"What does this mean? You've dared to—?"
"What the blazes else could I do?" blustered Milo—though under
the bluster ran a thread of placating timidity. "He saved my life,
didn't he? I was tackled by—"
"For one thing," suggested Hade. "you could have hit a little
harder with the wrench. If a blow is worth hitting at all it's worth
hitting to kill. You have the strength of an elephant, and the nerve
of a sheep."
"Rodney!" protested Claire, indignantly. "He—"
"I've seen his face. somewhere," went on Hade unheeding. "I
could swear to that. I can't place it. yet. But I shall. Meantime
get rid of him. And now I'll hear about this attack on you .... Come
out on the veranda. This hall reeks of iodine and liniment and all
such stuff. It smells like a hospital ward Come outside."
Despite the unvarying sweet smoothness of his diction. he spoke
as if giving orders to a servant. But apparently neither of the two
Standishes resented his dictation. For Brice could hear them follow
Hade out of the house. And from the veranda presently came the
booming murmur of Standish's voice in a recital of some kind.
Gavin reopened his bedroom door and entered. Shutting the door
softly behind him, he made a brief mental inventory of the room, then
undressed and got into bed. Ten minutes later Miles Standish came
into the room. carrying fresh dressings and a bottle of lotion.
Gavin roused himself from a half-doze and was duly grateful for the
dexterous applying of the new bandages to his bruised scalp.
"You work like a surgeon," he told Milo.
"Thanks," returned Standish drily, making no other comment on the
His task accomplished Standish bade his guest a curt good night
and left the room. A minute later Gavin got up and stole to the door
to verify a faint sound he fancied he had heard. And he found he had
been correct in his guess. For the door was locked from the outside.
Brice crept to the windows. The room was in darkness, and,
unseen, he could look out on the darkness of the night. As he looked
a faint reddish spot of fire appeared in the gloom, just at the
beginning of the lawn. Some one, cigar in mouth, was evidently
keeping a watch on his room's windows. Gavin smiled to himself, and
went back to bed.
"Door locked, windows guarded," he reflected, amusedly. "I owe
that to Mr. Hade's orders. Seen me before, has he? I'll bet my
year's income he'll never remember where or when or how. At that he's
clever even to think he's seen me. It looks as if I had let myself in
for a wakeful time down here, doesn't it? But I'm getting the tangled
ends all in my hands,—as fast as I had any right to hope. That rap
on the skull was a godsend. He can't refuse me a job after my fight
for him. No one could. I—oh, if it wasn't for the girl this would
be great! What can a girl, with eyes like hers, be doing in a crowd
"I'd—I'd have been willing to swear she was—was—one of the
women whom God made. And now—! Still, if a woman lets herself in
for this kind of thing she can't avoid paying the bill. Only—if I
can save her without— Oh, I'm turning into a mushy fool in my old
age! ... And she sobbed when she thought I was killed! ... I've got
to get a real night's rest if I want to have my wits about me
He stretched himself out luxuriously in the cool bed, and in less
than five minutes he was sleeping as sweetly and as deeply as a child.
Long experience in the European trenches and elsewhere had taught him
the rare gift of slumbering at will, a gift which had done much toward
keeping his nerves and his faculties in perfect condition. For sleep
is the keynote to more than mankind realizes.
The sun had risen when Gavin Brice awoke. Apart from stiffness
and a very sore head his inured system was little the worse for the
evening's misadventures. A cold shower and a rubdown and a shave in
the adjoining bathroom. cleared away the last mists from his brain.
He dressed quickly, glanced at his watch and saw the hour was not
quite seven. Then he faced his bedroom door and hesitated.
"If he's a born idiot," he mused. "it's still locked. If he
isn't it's unlocked and the key has been taken away. I've made noise
enough while I was dressing."
He turned the knob. The door opened readily. The key was gone.
In the hallway outside the room and staring up at him from widely
shallow green eyes. sat Simon Cameron, the big Persian cat.
"That's a Persian all over. Simon my friend," said Brice,
stooping down to scratch the cat's furry head in greeting. "A
Persian will sit for hours in front of any door that's got a stranger
behind it. And he'll show more flattering affection for a stranger
than for any one he's known all his life. Isn't that true. Simon?"
By way of response. the big cat rubbed himself luxuriously
against the man's shins, purring loudly. Then, at a single lithe
spring he was on Gavin's shoulder, making queer little whistling
noises and rubbing his head lovingly against Brice's cheek. Gavin
made his way downstairs the cat still clinging to his shoulder,
fanning his face with a swishing gray foxlike tail, digging curved
claws back and forth into the cloth of his shabby coat, and purring
like a distant railroad train.
Only when they reached the lower hallway did the cat jump from his
shoulder and with a flying leap land on the top of a nearby bookcase.
There, luxuriously, Simon Cameron stretched himself out in a shaft of
sunlight, and prepared for a nap.
Brice went on to the veranda. On the lawn, scarce fifty feet
away, Claire was gathering flowers for the breakfast table. Very
sweet and dainty was she in the flood of morning sunshine, her white
dress and her burnished hair giving back waves of radiance from the
sun's strong beams.
At her side walked Bobby Burns. But, on first sound of Brice's
step on the porch, the collie looked up and saw him. With a joyous
bark of welcome Bobby came dashing across the lawn and up the steps.
Leaping and gamboling around Gavin. he set the echoes ringing with a
series of trumpet-barks. The man paused to pet his adorer and to say
a word of friendliness, then ran down the steps toward Claire who was
advancing to meet him. Her arms were full of scarlet and golden
"Are you better?" she called, noting the bandage on his head had
been replaced by a neat strip of plaster. "I hoped you'd sleep
longer. Bobby Burns ran up to your room and scratched at the door as
soon as I let him into the house this morning. But I made him come
away again. Are—"
"He left a worthy substitute welcoming-committee there, in the
shape of Simon Cameron," said Gavin. "Simon was overwhelmingly
cordial to me, for a Persian .... I'm all right again, thanks," he
added. "I had a grand night's rest. It was fine to sleep in a real
bed again. I hope I'm not late for breakfast?"
A shade of embarrassment flitted over her eyes, and she made
"My brother had to go into Miami on—on business. So he had
breakfast early. He'll hardly be back before noon he says. So you
and I will have to breakfast without him. I hope you don't mind?"
As there seemed no adequate reply to this useless question. the
man contented himself with following her wordlessly into the cool
house. She seemed to bring light and youth and happiness indoors with
her, and the armful of flowers she carried filled the dim hallway with
Breakfast was a simple meal and soon eaten. Brice brought to it
only a moderate appetite, and was annoyed to find his thoughts
centering themselves about the slender white-clad girl across the
table from him. rather than upon his food or even upon his plan of
campaign. He replied in monosyllables to her pleasant table-talk, and
when his eye chanced to meet hers he had an odd feeling of guilt.
She was so pretty, so little, so young, so adorably friendly and
innocent in her every look and word! Something very like a heartache
began to manifest itself in Gavin Brice's supposedly immune breast.
And this annoyed him more than ever. He told himself solemnly that
this girl was none of the wonderful things she seemed to be, and that
he was an idiot for feeling as he did.
To shake free from his unwonted reverie he asked abruptly, as the
"Would you mind telling me why you drew a revolver on me last
evening? You don't seem the kind of girl to adopt Wild West tactics
and to carry a pistol around with you here in peaceful Florida. I
don't want to seem inquisitive, of course, but ?"
"And I don't want to seem secretive," she replied. nervously.
"All I can tell you is that my brother has—has enemies (as you know
from the attack on him) and that he doesn't think it is safe for me to
go around the grounds alone, late in the day, unarmed. So he gave me
that old pistol of his, and asked me to carry it. That was why he
sent North for Bobby Burns— as a guard for me and for the place here.
When I saw you appearing out of the swamp I—I took you for some one
else. I'm sorry."
"I'm not," he made answer. "I—"
"You must have a charming idea of our hospitality," she went on
with a nervous little laugh. "First I threaten to shoot you. Then my
brother stuns you. And both times when you are doing us a service."
"Please!" he laughed. "And if it comes to that. what must you
people think of a down-at-heel Yankee who descends on you and cadges
for a job after he's been told there's no work here for him?"
"Oh, but there is!" she insisted. "Milo told me so. this
morning. And you're to stay here till he comes back and can talk
things over with you. Would you care to walk around the farm and the
groves with me? Or would the sun be bad for your head?"
"It would be just the thing my head needs most," he declared.
"Besides, I've heard so much of these wonderful Florida farms. I'm
mighty anxious to inspect one of them. We can start whenever you're
Ten minutes later they had left the lawn behind them, and had
passed through the hedge into the first of the chain of citrus
groves. In front of them stretched some fifteen acres of grapefruit
"This is the worst soil we have," lectured Claire. evidently
keenly interested in the theme of agriculture and glad of an
attentive listener. "It is more coral rock than anything else. That
is why Milo planted it in grapefruit. Grapefruit will grow where
almost nothing else will, you know. Why, last year wasn't by any
means a banner season. But he made $16,000 in gross profits off this
one grapefruit orchard alone. Of course that was gross and not net.
"Is there so much difference between the two?" he asked
innocently. "Down here, I mean. Up North, we have an idea that all
you Floridians need do is to stick a switch into the rich soil, and
let it grow. We picture you as loafing around in dreamy idleness till
it's time to gather your fruit and to sell it at egregious prices to
us poor Northerners."
"It's a lovely picture," she retorted. "And it's exactly upside
down, like most Northern ideas of Florida. When it comes to picking
the fruit and shipping it North—that's the one time we can loaf. For
we don't pick it or ship it. That's done for us on contract. It's our
lazy time. But every other step is a fight. For instance, there's
the woolly white fly and there's the rust mite and there's the purple
scale. and there are a million other pests just as bad. And we have
to battle with them. all the time. And when we spray with the
pumping engine. the sand is certain to get into the engine and ruin
it. And when we—"
"I had no notion that—"
"No Northerners have," she said, warming to her theme. "I wish I
could set some of them to scrubbing orange-trunks with soap-and-water
and spraying acre after acre, as we do, in a wild race to keep up with
the pests, knowing all the time that some careless grove owner next
door may let the rust mite or the black fly get the better of his
grove and let it drift over into ours. Then there's always the chance
that a grove may get so infected that the government will order it
destroyed, —wiped out .... I've been talking just about the citrus
fruits, the grapefruit and the tangeloes and oranges and all that.
Pretty much the same thing applies to all our crops down here. We've
as many blights and pests and weather-troubles as you have in the
North. And now and then, even in Dade County, we get a frost that
does more damage than a forest fire."
As she talked they passed out of the grapefruit grove, and came to
a plantation of orange trees.
"These are the joy of Milo's heart," she said with real pride,
waving her little hand toward the well-ranked lines of blossoming and
bearing young trees. "Last year he cleared up from this five-acre
plot alone more than—"
"Excuse me," put in Gavin. "I don't mean to be rude. But since
he's made such a fine grove of it and takes such pride in its looks.
why doesn't he send a man or two out here with a hoe, and get rid of
that tangle of weeds? It covers the ground of the whole grove, and it
grows rankly under every tree. If you'll pardon me for saying so. it
gives the place an awfully unkempt look. If—"
Her gay laugh broke in on his somewhat hesitant criticism.
"Say that to any Floridian," she mocked, "and he'll save you the
trouble of looking for work by getting you admitted to the nearest
asylum. Why Milo fosters those weeds and fertilizes them and even
warns the men not to trample them in walking here. If you should
begin your work for Milo by hoeing out any of these weeds he'd have to
buy weed-seeds and sow them all over again. He—"
"Then there's a market for this sort of stuff?" he asked, stooping
to inspect with interest a spray of smelly ragweed. "I didn't know—"
"No," she corrected. "But the market for our oranges would slump
without them. Here in the subtropics the big problem is water for
moistening the soil. Very few of us irrigate. We have plenty of
water as a rule. But we also have more than a plenty of sun. The sun
sucks up the water and leaves the soil parched. In a grove like this
the roots of the orange trees would suffer from it. These weeds
shelter the roots from the sun, and they help keep the moisture in the
ground. They are worth everything to us. Of course, in some of the
fields we mulch to keep the ground damp. Milo bought a whole carload
of Australian pine needles. last month at Miami. They make a
splendid mulch. Wild hay is good. too. So is straw. But the pine
needles are cheapest and easiest to get. The rain soaks down through
them into the ground. And they keep the sun from drawing it back
again. Besides, they keep down weeds in fields where we don't want
weeds. See!" she ended, pointing to a new grove they were
Gavin noted that here the orange tree rows were alternated with
rows of strawberry plants.
"That was an idea of Milo's, too," she explained. "It's
'intercrop' farming. And he's done splendidly with it so far. He
thinks the eel-worm doesn't get at the berry plants as readily here as
in the open, but he's not sure of that yet. He's had to plant cowpeas
on one plot to get rid of it."
"The experiment of intercropping orange trees with strawberries
isn't new," said Brice thoughtlessly. "When the plants are as thick
as he's got them here. it's liable to harm the trees in the course of
time. Two rows, at most, are all you ought to plant between the
tree-ranks. And that mulch over there is a regular Happy Home for
crickets. If Standish isn't careful—"
The girl was staring up at him in astonishment. And Gavin was
aware for the first time that he had been thinking aloud.
"You see," he expounded. smiling vaingloriously down at her. "I
amused myself at the Miami library Saturday by browsing over a sheaf
of Government plant reports. And those two solid facts stuck in my
memory. Now. won't I be an invaluable aide to your brother if I can
remember everything else as easily?"
Still puzzled she continued to look up at him.
"It's queer that a man who has just come down here should remember
such a technical thing," said she. "And yesterday you warned me
against letting Bobby Burns wander in the palmetto scrub, for fear of
"That deep mystery is also easy to solve," he said. "In the
smoker on the way South several men were telling how they had lost
valuable hunting dogs. hereabouts from rattlesnakes. I like Bobby
Burns. So I passed along the warning. What are those queer trees?"
he asked shifting the dangerous subject. "I mean the ones that look
like a mixture of horse-chestnut and—"
"Avocadoes," she answered, interest in the task of farm guide
making her forget her momentary bewilderment at his scraps of local
knowledge. "They're one of our best crops. Sometimes a single
avocado will sell in open market here for as much as forty cents.
There's money in them, nearly always. Good money. And the spoiled
ones are great for the pigs. Then the Northern market for them—"
"Avocadoes ?" he repeated curiously. "There! Now you see how
much I know about Florida. From this distance. their fruits look to
me exactly like alligator pears or—"
Again. her laugh interrupted him.
"If only you'd happened to look in one or two more government
reports at the library," she teased. "you'd know that an avocado and
an alligator pear are the same thing."
"Anyhow," he boasted. picking up a gold-red fruit at the edge of
a smaller grove. they were passing. "anyhow. I know what this is,
without being told. I've seen them a hundred times in the New York
markets. This is a tangerine."
"In that statement," she made judicial reply. "you've made only
two mistakes. You're improving. In the first place, that isn't a
tangerine, though it looks like one—or would if it were half as
large. That's a king orange. In the second place, you've hardly ever
seen them in any New York market. They don't transport as well as some
other varieties. And very few of them go North. Northerners don't
know them. And they miss a lot. For the king is the most delicious
orange in the world. And it's the trickiest and hardest for us to
raise. See, the skin comes off it as easily as off of a tangerine,
and it breaks apart in the same way. The rust mite has gotten at this
one. See that russet patch on one side of it? You'll often see it on
oranges that go North. Sometimes they're russet all over. That means
the rust mite has dried the oil in the skin and made the skin thinner
and more brittle. It doesn't seem to injure the taste. But it—"
"There's a grand tree over toward the road," he said. his
attention wandering. "It must be nearly a century old. It has the
most magnificent sweep of foliage I've seen since I left the North.
What is it?"
"That?" she queried. "Oh, that's another of Milo's prides. It's
an Egyptian fig. 'Ficus Something or other.' Isn't it beautiful?
But it isn't a century old. It isn't more than fifteen years old.
It grows tremendously fast. Milo has been trying to interest the
authorities in Miami in planting lines of them for shade trees and
having them in the city parks. There's nothing more beautiful. And
nothing, except the Australian pine, grows faster .... There's
another of Milo's delights," she continued, pointing to the left.
"It's ever so old. The natives around here call it 'The Ghost
They had been moving in a wide circle through the groves. Now,
approaching the house from the other side, they came out on a grassy
little space on the far edge of the lawn. In the center of the space
stood a giant live-oak towering as high as a royal palm, and with
mighty boughs stretching out in vast symmetry on every side. It was a
true forest monarch. And like many another monarch. it was only a
ghost of its earlier grandeur.
For from every outflung limb and from every tiniest twig hung
plumes and festoons and stalactites of gray moss. For perhaps a
hundred years the moss had been growing thus on the giant oak, first
in little bunches and trailers that were scarce noticeable and which
affected the forest monarch's appearance and health not at all.
Then year by year the moss had grown and had taken toll of the
bark and sap. At last it had killed the tree on which it fed. And
its own source of life being withdrawn itself had died.
So, now the gaunt tree with its symmetrical spread of branches
stood lifeless. And its tons of low-hanging festooned moss was as
void of life as was the tree they had killed. Tinder-dry it hung
there, a beauteous, tragic, spectacle, towering high above the
surrounding flatness of landscape, visible for miles by land and by
Fifty yards beyond a high interlaced hedge of vines bordered the
clearing. Toward this Gavin bent his idle steps, wondering vaguely
how such a lofty and impenetrable wall of vine was supported from the
Claire had stopped to call off Bobby Burns who had discovered a
highly dramatic toad-hole on the edge of the lawn and who was digging
enthusiastically at it with both flying fore-feet, casting up a cloud
of dirt and cutting into the sward's neat border. Thus she was not
aware of Brice's diversion.
Gavin approached the twenty-foot high vine-wall, and thrust his
hand in through the thick tangle of leaves. His sensitive fingers
touched the surface of a paling. Running his hand along. he found
that the entire vine palisade was, apparently, backed by a twenty-foot
stockade of solid boards. If there were a gate, it was hidden from
view. It was then that Claire, looking up from luring Bobby Burns
away from the toad-hole, saw whither Gavin had strayed.
"Oh," she called. hurrying toward him. "That's the enclosure
Milo made years ago for his experiments in evolving the 'perfect
orange' he is so daft about. He's always afraid some other grower may
take advantage of his experiments. So he keeps that little grove
walled in. He's never even let me go in there. So—"
A deafening salvo of barks from Bobby Burns broke in on her
recital. The collie had caught sight of Simon Cameron mincing along
the lawn, and he gave rapturous and rackety chase. Claire ran after
them crying out to the dog to desist. And Gavin took advantage of the
brief instant when her back was turned to him.
His fingers in slipping along the wall had encountered a rotting
spot at the juncture of two palings. Pushing sharply against this he
forced a fragment of the decayed wood inward. Then, quickly, he shoved
aside the tangle of vines and applied one eye to the tiny aperture.
"A secret orange-grove. eh?" he gasped. under his breath. "Good
Lord! Was she lying to me or did she actually believe him when he
lied to her?"
CHAPTER V. TRAPS AND TRAPPER
To south and to southeast, the green-blue transparent sea. Within
sight of the land, the purple-blue Gulf Stream,—a mystic warm river a
half mile deep, thousands of miles long, traveling ever at a speed of
eighty miles a day through the depth of the ocean, as distinct and as
unswerving from its chosen course as though it flowed through land
instead of through shifting water.
Studded in the milk-tepid nearer waters, innumerable coral islets
and keys and ridges. Then the coral-built tongue of land running
north without so much as a respectably large hillock to break its
flatness. Along the coast the tawny beaches, the mangrove-swamps, the
rich farms, the groves, the towns, the villages, the estates,
snow-white Miami, the nation's southernmost big city.
Back of this foreshore, countless miles of waving grass, rooted in
water, and with a stray clump of low trees, dotted here and there, the
Everglades, a vast marsh that runs north to the inland sea known as
Lake Okeechobee. Then the solid sandy ground of the main State.
Along the foreshore, and running inland, miles of sand-barren
scattered with gaunt pines and floored with harsh palmetto-scrub.
Strewn here and there through this sandy expanse lovely oases,
locally known as "hammocks", usually in hollows, and consisting of
several acres of rich soil where tropic and sub-tropic trees grow as
luxuriantly as in a jungle, where undergrowth and vine run riot, where
orchid and airplant and wondrous-hued flowers blaze through the green
gloom of interlaced foliage.
This, roughly, is a bird's-eye glimpse of the southeastern stretch
of Florida, a region of glory and glow and fortunes and mystery.
(Which is perhaps a momentary digression from our story, but will
serve. for all that to fix its setting more vividly in the eyes of
When Milo Standish came back from Miami that noon he professed
much loud-voiced joy at seeing his guest so well recovered from the
night's mishaps. At lunch. he suggested:
"I am running across to Roustabout Key this afternoon. in the
launch. It's an island I bought a few years ago. I keep a handful
of men there to work a grapefruit grove and a mango orchard and some
other stuff I've planted. I go over to it every week or so. Would
you care to come along?"
He spoke with elaborate carelessness, and looked anywhere except
at his guest. Gavin, not appearing to note the concealed nervousness
of his host's voice and manner, gave eager consent. And at two
o'clock they set forth.
They drove in Milo's car a half-mile or more to southwestward
along the road which fronted the house. Then turning into a sand
byway which ran crookedly at right angles to it and which skirted the
southern end of the mangrove-swamp, they headed for the sea. Another
half-mile brought them to a handkerchief-sized beach, much like that
on the other side of the swamp. where Gavin had found the hidden
path. Here, on mangrove-wood piles, was a short pier with a boathouse
at its far end.
"I keep my launch and my fishing-boats in there," explained Milo.
as he climbed out of the car. "If it wasn't for that pesky swamp. I
could have had this pier directly back of my house, and saved a lot of
"Why not cut a road through the swamp?" suggested Brice, following
him along the pier.
Again Standish gave vent to that great laugh of his—a laugh
outwardly jovial, but as hollow as a shell.
"Young man," said he. "if ever you try to cut your way through an
East Coast mangrove-swamp you'll find out just how silly that question
is. A swamp like that might as well be a quick-sand, for all the
chance a mortal has of traveling through it."
Gavin made no reply. Again, he was visualizing the cleverly
engineered path from the beach-edge to Milo's lawn. And he recalled
Claire's unspoken plea that he say nothing to Standish about his
chance discovery of it. He remembered, too, the night-song of the
mocking bird from the direction of that path, and the advent of Rodney
Hade from it.
Milo had unlocked the boat-house, and was at work over a
fifteen-foot steel motorboat which was slung on chains above the
water. A winch and well-constructed pulleys-and-chains made simple
the labor of launching it in so quiet a sea.
Out they fared into the gleaming sunlit waters of the bay. Far to
eastward gleamed the white city of Miami, and nearer, across the bay
from it the emerald stretch of key with Cape Florida and the old
Spanish Light on its southern point and the exquisite "golden house"
of Mashta shining midway down its shoreline. Miles to eastward
gleamed the gray viaduct, the grain elevator outlines of the Flamingo
rising yellow above a fire-blue sea.
"I used to hear great stories about this region years ago,"
volunteered Brice as the launch danced over the transparent water
past Ragged Keys and bore southward. "I heard them from a chap who
used to winter hereabouts. It was he who first interested me in
Florida. He says these keys and inlets and changing channels used to
be the haunts of Spanish Main pirates."
"They were," said Milo. "The pirates knew these waters. The
average merchant skipper didn't. They'd build signal flares on the
keys to lure ships onto the rocks, and then loot them. At least that
was the everyday (or everynight) amusement of their less venturesome
members and their women and children. The more adventurous used to
overhaul vessels skirting the coast to and from Cuba and Central
America. They'd sally out from their hiding-places among the keys and
lie in wait for the merchant-ships. If the prey was weak enough
they'd board and ransack her and make her crew walk the
plank,—(that's how Aaron Burr's beautiful daughter is supposed to
have died on her way North, you know,)—and if the ship showed fight
or seemed too tough a handful the pirates hit on a surer way of
capture. They'd turn tail and run. The merchant ship would give
chase, for there were fat rewards out for the capture of the sea
rovers, you know. The pirates would head for some strip of water that
seemed perfectly navigable. The ship would follow, and would pile up
on a sunken reef that the pirates had just steered around."
"They were a thrifty and shrewd crowd those old-time
black-flaggers. After they were wiped out the wreckers still reaped
their fine harvest by signaling ships onto reefs at night. Their
descendants live down among some of the keys still. We call them
'conchs,' around here. They're an illiterate, uncivilized, furtive,
eccentric lot. And they pick up some sort of living off wrecked ships
and off what cargo washes ashore from the wrecks. A missionary went
down there and tried to convert them. He found the 'conch' children
already had religion enough to pray every night. 'Lord, send a wreck!'
The conchs gather a lot of plunder every year. They—"
"Do they sell it or claim salvage on it. or—?"
"Not they. That would call for too much brain and education and
for mixing with civilization. They wear it, or put it to any crazy
use they can think of. For instance fifty sewing-machines were in the
cargo of a tramp steamer bound from Charleston to Brazil one winter.
She ran ashore a few miles south of here. The conchs got busy with
the plunder. The cargo was a veritable godsend to them. They used the
sewing machines as anchors for their boats. Another time a box of
shoes washed ashore. They were left-hand shoes. all of them. The
right-hand box must have landed somewhere else. And a hundred conchs
blossomed forth with brand new shoes. They could wear the left shoe.
of course, with no special bother. And they slit down the vamp of
the shoe they put on the right foot, so their toes could stick out and
not be cramped. A good many people think they still lure ships
ashore by flares. But the lighthouse service has pretty well put a
stop to that."
"This chap I was speaking about,—the fellow who told me so much
about this region," said Gavin. "told me there is supposed to be
pirate gold buried in more than one of these keys."
"Rot!" snorted Milo with needless vehemence. "All poppycock! Look
at it sanely for a minute, and you'll see that all the yarns of pirate
gold-including Captain Kidd's—are rank idiocy. In the first place.
the pirates never seized any such fabulous sums of money as they were
credited with. The bullion ships always went under heavy man-o'-war
escort. When pirates looted some fairly rich merchant ship there were
dozens of men to divide the plunder among. And they sailed to the
nearest safe port to blow it all on an orgy. Of course, once in a
blue moon they buried or hid the valuables they got from one ship
while they went after another. And if they chanced to sink or be
captured and hanged during such a raid the treasure remained hidden.
If they survived, they blew it. That's the one off-chance of there
ever being any buried pirate treasure. And there would be precious
little of it. at that. A few hundred dollars worth at most. No,
Brice. this everlasting legend of buried treasure is fine in a
sea-yarn. But in real life it's buncombe."
"But this same man told me there were stories of bullion ships and
even more modern vessels carrying a money cargo that sank in these
waters, during storms or from running into reefs," pursued Brice, with
no great show of interest, as he leaned far overside for a second
glimpse at a school of five-foot baracuda which-lay basking on the
snowy surface of the sand. two fathoms below the boat. "That, at
least, sounds probable. doesn't it?"
"No," snapped Milo flushing angrily and his brow creasing, "it
doesn't. These water are traversed every year by thousands of craft
of all sizes. The water is crystal clear. Any wrecked ship could be
seen at the bottom. Why, everybody has seen the hull of that old
tramp steamer a few miles above here. It's in deep water, at that.
"Yet there are hundreds of such stories afloat," persisted Brice.
"And there are more yarns of buried treasure among the keys than
there are keys. For instance didn't old Caesar, the negro pirate,
hang out here. somewhere?"
Milo laughed again, this time with a maddening tolerance.
"Oh, Caesar?" said he. "To be sure. He's as much a legend of
these keys as Lafitte is of New Orleans. He was an escaped slave,
who scraped together a dozen fellow-ruffians, black and white and
yellow—mostly yellow—about a century ago, and stole a long boat or a
broken-down sloop, and started in at the trade of pirate. He didn't
last long. And there's no proof he ever had any special success. But
he's the sea-hero of the conchs. They've named a key and a so-called
creek after him, and in my father's time there used to be an old iron
ring in a bowlder known as 'Caesar's Rock.' The ring was probably put
there by oystermen. But the conchs insisted Caesar used to tie up
there. Then there's the 'Pirates' Punchbowl,' off Coconut Grove.
Caesar is supposed to have dug that. He—"
An enormous sailfish—dazzlingly metallic blue and silver— broke
from the calm water just ahead, and whirled high in air, smiting the
bay again with a splash that sounded like a gunshot.
"That fellow must have been close to seven feet long," commented
Milo as the two men watched the churned water where the fish had
struck. "He's the kind you see when you aren't trolling. He's after
a school of ballyhoos or mossbunkers .... There's Roustabout Key
just ahead," he finished as their launch rounded an outcrop of rock
and came in view of a mile-long wooded island a bare thousand yards
off the weather bow.
A mangrove fringe covered the shoreline, two thirds of the way
around the key. At the eastern end was a strip of snowy beach backed
by an irregular line of coconut palms, and with a very respectable
dock in the foreground. From the pier a wooden path led upward
through the scattering double row of palms to a corrugated iron hut,
with smaller huts and outbuildings half seen through the
"I've some fairly good mango trees back yonder," said Standish as
he brought the launch alongside the dock's wabbly float, "and
grapefruit that is paying big dividends at last. The mangoes won't be
ripe till June, of course. But they're sold already, to the last
half-bushel of them."
"'Futures,' eh?" suggested Gavin,
"'Futures,'" assented Milo. "And 'futures' in farming. are just
about as certain as in Wall Street. There's a mighty gamble to this
"How long have—?" began Gavin, then stopped short and stared.
One or two negro laborers had drifted down toward the dock, as the
boat warped in at the float. Now, from the corrugated iron hut
appeared a white man, who, at sight of the boat, broke into a limping
run and was in time to catch the line which Milo flung at him.
The man was sparsely and sketchily clad. At first. his tanned
face seemed to be of several different colors and to have been modeled
by some bungling caricaturist. Yet, despite this eccentricity of
aspect, something about the obsequiously hurrying man struck Brice as
familiar. And, all at once, he recognized him.
This was the big beach comber with whom Gavin had fought barely
twenty-four hours earlier. The man bore bruises and swellings
a-plenty on his rugged features, where Brice's whalebone blows had
crashed. And they had distorted his face almost past recognition. He
moved, too, with manifest discomfort, as if all his huge body were as
sore as his visage.
"Hello, Roke!!" hailed Milo genially, then in amaze. "what in
thunder have you been doing to yourself? Been trying to stop the
East Coast Flyer? Or did you just get into an argument with one of
the channel dredges?"
"Fell," said Roke. succinctly, jerking his thumb back toward the
corrugated iron hut. "Climbed my roof to mend a leak. Fell. My face
hit every bump. Then I landed on a pile of coconuts. I'm sore all
He gurgled, mouthingly, as his swollen eyes chanced to light on
Gavin Brice. who was just following Milo from the launch to the
float. And his discolored and unshaven jaw went slack.
"Oh, Brice," said Standish carelessly. "This is my foreman here,
Perry Roke. As a rule he looks like other people, except that he's
bigger, just now his cravings for falling off corrugated roofs have
done things to his face. Shake hands with him. If you like the job
I'm going to offer you he and you will be side-partners over here."
Gavin faced his recent adversary, grinning pleasantly up at the
battered and scowling face, and noting that the knife sheath at Roke's
hip was still empty.
"Hello!" he said civilly, offering his hand.
Roke gulped again, went purple, and, with sudden furious
vehemence, grabbed at the proffered hand, enfolding it in his own
monstrous grip in an industrious attempt to smash its every bone.
But reading the intent with perfect ease. Brice shifted his own
hand ever so little and with nimbly practised fingers eluded the
crushing clasp, at the same time slipping his thumb over the heel of
Roke's clutching right hand and letting his three middle fingers meet
at the exact center of that hand's back. Then, tightening his hold,
he gave an almost imperceptible twist. It was one of the first and
the simplest of the tricks his jiu-jutsu instructor had taught him.
And, as ever with an opponent not prepared for it, the grip served.
To the heedlessly watching Standish he seemed merely to be
accepting the invitation to shake hands with Roke. But the next
instant, under the apparently harmless contact, Roke's big body veered
sharply to one side. from the hips upward, and a bellow of raging
pain broke from his puffed lips.
"Oh, I beg your pardon!" cried Brice in quick contrition: "You
must have hurt your hand when you fell off that roof. I'm sorry if I
made it worse."
Nursing his wrenched wrist. Roke glowered hideously at the
smiling Gavin. Brice could feel no compunction for his own behavior.
For he remembered the hurled knife and the brutal kicking of the dog.
Yet he repented him of the hand-twisting trick. For if he and Roke
were expected to work together as Milo had said, he had certainly made
a most unfortunate beginning to their acquaintanceship, and just now
he had added new and painful aggravation to his earlier offense.
Milo was surveying the sufferer with no great pity, as Roke bent
over his hurt wrist.
"Too bad!" commented Standish. "I suppose that will put a crimp
in your violin-playing for a while."
Turning to Gavin who looked in new surprise at the giant on
hearing of this unexpected accomplishment. Milo explained:
"I hired Roke to run this key for me and keep the conchs and the
coons at work. But I've got a pretty straight tip that, as soon as
my back is turned, he cuts indoors and spends most of his day whanging
at that disreputable old violin of his. And when Rodney Hade comes
over here. I can't get a lick of work out of Roke, for love or money.
Hade is one of the best amateur violinists in America, and he's daft
on playing. He drops in here. every now and then—he has an interest
with me in the groves—and as soon as he catches sight of Roke's
violin. he starts playing it. That means no more work out of Roke
till Hade chooses to stop. He just stands, with his mouth wide open,
hypnotized. Can't drag him away for a second. Hey. Roke?"
Roke had ceased nursing his wrist and had listened with sheepish
amusement to his employer's guying. But at this question, he made
"I'm here now."
He jerked the thumb of his uninjured hand toward a spic- and-span
launch which lay moored between two sodden scows, and then nodded in
the direction of the corrugated iron hut among the trees.
Listening—though the wind set the wrong way for it—Brice could
hear faintly the strains of a violin. played ever so softly and with
a golden wealth of sweetness. Even at that distance, by listening
closely, he could make out a phrase or so of Dvorak's "Hiawatha" music
from the "New World Symphony." Milo's loud laugh broke in on his
audition and on the suddenly rapt look upon Roke's bruised face.
"Come along!" said Standish, leading the way toward the house.
"Music's a fine thing, I'm told. But it doesn't spray a grapefruit
orchard or keep the scale off of mango trees. Come up to the house.
I want to show you over the island and have a chat with you about the
job I have in mind."
As Milo strode on the two others fell in step behind him. Brice
lowered his voice and said to the sulking Roke:
"That collie belongs to Mr. Standish. I did you a good turn it
seems by keeping you from stealing him. You'd have been in a worse
fix than you are now, if Mr. Standish had come over here to-day and
found him on the island."
Roke did not deign to reply, but moved a little farther from the
"At this rate," said Brice pleasantly. "you and I are likely to
have a jolly time together, out here. I can' imagine a merrier chum
for a desert island visit. I only hope I won't neglect my work
chatting with you all day."
Roke eyed him obliquely as he plodded on, and his battered
lip-corner lifted a little in what looked like a beast snarl. But he
Then they were at the shallow porch of the hut and Milo Standish
had thrown open its iron door letting out a gush of golden melody from
the violin. At his hail. the music ceased. And Rodney Hade, fiddle
in hand, appeared in the doorway.
"You're late," said the violinist, speaking to Milo with that
ever-smiling suavity which Gavin recalled from the night before, and
ignoring Gavin entirely "You've kept me waiting."
Despite the smooth voice and the eternal smile there was an
undernote of rebuke in the words, as of a teacher who reproves a
child for tardiness. And, meekly, Standish replied:
"I'm sorry. I was detained at Miami. And lunch was late. I got
here as soon as I could. I—"
With an impatient little wave of one white hand. Hade checked his
excuses and dismissed the subject. In the same moment his snakelike
black eyes fixed themselves on Brice whom he seemed to notice for the
first time. The eyes were smiling. But he granted the guest no
further form of salutation, as he asked abruptly:
"Where have I seen you before?"
"You saw me last night," returned Gavin. still wondering at this
man's dictatorial attitude toward the aggressive Milo Standish and at
Milo's almost cringing acceptance of it. "I was at the Standishes. I
was just starting for bed when you dropped in. Miss Standish
"I'm not speaking about last night," curtly interrupted Hade,
though his voice was as soft as ever and his masklike face was set in
its everlasting smile. "I mean, where did I run across you before
"Well. Mr. Bones," answered Gavin with flippant insolence, "Dat
am de question propounded. Where did you-all run acrost me befo' las'
Milo and Roke stirred convulsively, as if scandalized that any one
should dare speak with such impudence to Hade. Rodney himself all but
lost the eternal smile from his thin lips: and his voice was less
suave than usual as he said:
"I don't care for impertinence, especially from employees. You
will bear that in mind. Now you will answer my question. Where did I
"If you can't remember," countered Gavin. "you can hardly expect
me to. I live in New York. I have lived there or thereabouts for a
number of years. I was overseas—stationed at Bordeaux and then at
Brest—for a few months in 1918. As a boy I lived on my father's farm
in northern New York State, near Manlius. That's the best answer I
can give you. If it will make you recall where you've seen me—all
right. If not I'm afraid I can't help you out. In any case what does
it matter? I don't claim to be anybody especial. I have no
references. Mr. Standish knows that. If he's willing to give me
some sort of job in spite of such drawbacks. it seems to be entirely
"The job I had—have—in mind for you," spoke up Milo. at a
glance from Hade, "is on this key, here. I need an extra man in the
main storehouse to oversee the roustabouts there. At this season Roke
is too busy outdoors to keep the right kind of eye on them. The pay
won't be large to start with. But if you make good at it. I may have
something better to offer you on the mainland. Or I may not. In any
case. I understand this is only a stopgap for you, and that you are
down here for your health. If you are interested in the idea, well
and good. If not—"
He paused and glanced at Hade as if for prompting. Throughout his
harangue Standish had given Brice the impression of a man who recites
a lesson taught him by another. Now Hade took up the tale.
"I think," said he smilingly—his momentary impatience gone —"I
think, before answering—in fact before coming down to terms and other
details—you might perhaps care to stroll around the island a little,
and get an idea of it for yourself. It may be you won't care to stay
here. It may be you will like it very much. Mr. Standish and I have
some routine business to talk over with Roke. Suppose you take a
walk over the place? Roke, assign one of the men to go with him and
show him around."
With instant obedience. Roke started for the door. Indeed, he
had almost reached it before Hade ceased speaking. Gavin raised his
brows at this swift anticipation of orders. And into his mind came an
"You seemed surprised to see me this afternoon," said he as he
followed Roke to the porch and closed the door behind them. "Yet Mr.
Hade had told you I was coming here. He had told you, and he had told
you to have some one ready to show me over the island."
As he spoke Gavin indicated with a nod a man who was trotting
across the sandy clearing toward them.
"Didn't know it was you!" grunted Roke. too surprised by the
direct assertion to fence. "Said some feller would come with Mr.
Standish. He—. How'd you know he told me?" he demanded in sudden
"There!" exclaimed Gavin admiringly. "I knew we'd chat along as
lovingly as two turtle-doves when once we'd get really started.
You're quite a talker when you want to be, Rokie my lad! If only you
didn't speak as if you were trying to save words on a telegram.
Here's the chap you'd ordered to be cruising in the offing as my
escort, eh?" as the barefoot roustabout reached the porch. "All
Leaving the grumbling and muttering Roke scowling after him. Brice
stepped out onto the sand to meet the newcomer. The roustabout
apparently belonged to the conch tribe of which Milo had spoken.
Thin. undersized. swarthy. with features that showed a trace of
negro and perhaps of Indian blood as well, he had a furtive manner and
seemed to cringe away from the Northerner as they set off across the
clearing. toward the distant huts and still more distant orchards.
He was bareheaded and stoop-shouldered. Beyond a ragged pair of
drill trousers—indescribably dirty—his only garment was a still
dirtier and raggeder undershirt. His naked feet flapped awkwardly,
like a turtle's. He was not a pretty or prepossessing sight.
Across the clearing he pattered, head down, still cringing away
from the visitor. As the two entered the shadows of the nearest grove
Gavin Brice glanced quickly around him on all sides. The conch did
the same. Then the two moved on with the same distance between them
And as they went Gavin spoke. He spoke in a low tone. not moving
his lips or looking directly toward the other man.
"Good boy. Davy!" he said, approvingly. "How did you get the job
of taking me around? I was afraid I'd have to look for you."
"Two other men were picked out to do it sir," said the conch
without slackening his pace or turning his head. "One after the
other. One was a nigger. One was a conch. Both of 'em got sick. I
paid 'em to. And I paid the nigger an extra five to tell Roke I'd be
the best man to steer you. He said he'd been on jobs with me before.
He and the conch are malingering in the sick shed. Ipecac. I gave
it to 'em."
"Good!" repeated Gavin. "Mighty good. Now what's the idea?"
"You're to be kept over here, sir," said the conch. "I don't know
why. Roke told me you're a chum of Hade's, and that Hade's doing it
to have a bit of fun with you. So I'm to lead you around awhile,
showing you the plant and such. Then I'm to take you to the second
storage hut and tell you we've got a new kind of avocado stored in
there, and let you go in ahead of me, and I'm to slam the spring-lock
door on you."
"Hm! That all, Davy?"
"Yes, sir. Except of course that it's a lie. Hade don't play
jokes or have fun with any one. If he's trying to keep you locked up
here a while it's most likely a sign he don't want you on the mainland
for some reason. Maybe that sounds foolish. But it's all the head or
tail I can make out of it, sir."
"It doesn't 'sound foolish,'" contradicted Brice. "As it happens
it's just what he wants to do. I don't know just why. But I mean to
find out. He wants me away from a house over there. A house I had a
lot of trouble in getting a foothold in. It's taken me the best part
of a month. And now I don't mean to spend another month in getting
"No, sir," said Davy, respectfully, still plodding on. in front
with head and shoulders bent. "No, sir. Of course. But—if you'll
let me ask, sir—does Hade know? Does he suspicion you? If that's
why he's framed this then Roustabout Key is no place for you. No more
is Dade County. He—"
"No," returned Gavin. smiling at the real terror that had crept
into the other's tone. "He doesn't know. And I'm sure he doesn't
suspect. But he has a notion he's seen me somewhere. And he's a man
who doesn't take chances. Besides he wants me away from the Standish
house. He wants every outsider away from it. And I knew this would
be the likeliest place for him to maroon me. That's why I sent you
word .... I'm a bit wobbly in my beliefs about the Standishes,—one of
them anyhow. Now, where's this storehouse prison of mine?"
"Over there, sir, to the right. But—"
"Take me over there. And walk slowly. I've some things to say to
you on the way, and I want you to get them straight in your memory."
"Yes, sir," answered the conch, shifting his course. so as to
bring his steps in a roundabout way toward the squat storeroom. "And
before you begin there's an extra key to the room under the second
packing box to the right. I made it from Roke's own key when I made
duplicates of all the keys here. I put it there this morning. In
case you should want to get out, you can say you found it lying on the
floor there. I rusted all the keys I made so they look old. He'll
likely think it's an extra key that was lost somewhere in there."
"Thanks," said Gavin. "You're a good boy. And you've got sense.
Talking swiftly and earnestly. he followed Davy toward the square
little iron building, the conch outwardly making no sign that he
heard. For, not many yards away, a handful of conchs and negroes were
at work on a half-completed shed.
Davy came to the store-room door, and opened it. Then. turning to
Brice he said aloud in the wretched dialect of his class:
"Funny avocado fruits all pile up in yon. Mighty funny. Make yo'
laugh. Want to go see? Look!"
He swung wide the iron door and pointed to the almost totally dark
"Funny to see in yon," he said invitingly. "Never see any like
'em befo'. I strike light for you. Arter you, my boss."
One or two men working on the nearby shed had stopped their labor
and were glancing covertly toward them.
"Oh, all right!" agreed Brice. his uninterested voice carrying
well though it was not noticeably raised. "It seems a stuffy sort of
hole. But I'll take a look at it if you like. Where's that light
you're going to strike? It—"
As he spoke he sauntered into the storeroom. His lazy speech was
cut short by the clangorous slamming of the iron door behind him.
Conscientiously he pounded on the iron and yelled wrathful commands
to Davy to open. Then when he thought he had made noise enough to add
verity to his role and to free the conch from any onlooker's suspicion
Groping his way through the dimness to the nearest box. he sat
down, philosophically, to wait.
"Well," he mused sniffing in no approval at all at the musty air
of the place and peering up at the single eight-inch barred window
that served more for ventilation than for light. "Well, here we are.
And here, presumably, we stay till Standish and Hade go back to the
mainland. Then I'm to be let out by Roke, with many apologies for
Davy's mistake. There'll be no way of getting back. The boats will
be hidden or padlocked. And here I'll stay, with Roke for a chum.
till whatever is going on at Standish's house is safely finished
with. It's a pretty program. If I can get away to-night without
Roke's finding it out till morning—"
His eyes were beginning to accustom themselves to the room. Its
corners and farther reaches and most of its floor were still
invisible. But, by straining his gaze, he could just make out the
shapes of a crate or two and several packing boxes close to the wall.
The central space was clear. In spite of the stuffiness. there was
a damp chill to the gloomy place, by contrast to the vivid sunlight
and the sweep of the trade-winds. outside.
Gavin stretched himself out at full length on the long box, and
prepared to take a nap. First he reached toward the next box—the one
under which Davy had told him the key was hidden- -and moved it an
inch or so to make certain it was not full enough to cause him any
especial effort in case he should not be released until next day and
should have need of the key. Then he shut his eyes, and let himself
drift toward slumber.
It was perhaps two hours later when he was roused from a light
doze by hearing something strike the concrete floor of his prison.
not six feet from his head. The thing had fallen with a slithering,
uneven sound, such as might be made by the dropping of a short length
Brice sat up. He noted that the room was no longer light enough
to see across. And he glanced in the direction of the window. Its
narrow space was blocked by something. And as he looked he heard a
second object slither to the floor.
"Some one's dropping things down here through that ventilator," he
And at the same moment a third fall sounded, followed almost at
once by a fourth. Then, for a second, the window space was clear,
only to be blocked again as the person outside returned to his post.
And in quick succession three more objects were sent slithering down
to the floor. After which the window was cleared once more, and Brice
could hear receding steps.
But he gave no heed to the steps. For as the last of the unseen
things had been slid through the aperture. another sound had focused
all his attention, and had sent queer little quivers up his spine.
The sound had been a long-drawn hiss.
And Gavin Brice understood. Now he knew why the softly falling
bodies had slithered so oddly down the short distance between window
and floor. And he read aright the slippery crawling little noises
that had been assailing his ears.
The unseen man outside had thrust through the ventilator not less
than seven or eight snakes, carried thither, presumably, in bags.
Crouching on his long box Gavin peered about him. Faintly against
the dense gray of the shadowy floor. he could see thick ropelike
forms twisting sinuously to and fro, as if exploring their new
quarters or seeking exit. More than once. as these chanced to cross
one another's path, that same long-drawn hiss quavered out into the
And now Brice's nostrils were assailed by a sickening smell as of
crushed cucumbers. And at the odor his fists tightened in new fear.
For no serpents give off that peculiar odor. except members of the
"They're not rattlesnakes," he told himself. "For a scared or
angry rattler would have this room vibrating with his whirr. We're
too far south for copperheads. The—the only other pit-viper I ever
heard of in Florida is the—cotton-mouth moccasin!"
At the realization he was aware of a wave of physical terror that
swept him like a breath of ice.
Without restoratives at hand the moccasin's bite is certain death.
The plan had been well thought out. At the very first step the
frantic prisoner might reasonably be relied on to encounter one or
more of the crawling horrors. The box on which he crouched was barely
eighteen inches high. The next box—under which rested the key—was
several feet away. The door was still farther off.
Truly Standish and Hade appeared to have hit on an excellent plan
for getting rid of the man they wanted out of the way! It would be so
easy for Roke to explain to possible inquirers that Brice had chanced
to tread on a poisonous snake in his wanderings about the key!
The slightest motion might well be enough to stir to active
hostility the swarm of serpents already angered by their sudden
dumping into this clammy den.
Weaponless, helpless, the trapped man crouched there and waited,
CHAPTER VI. IN THE DAY OF BATTLE
As Gavin Brice sat with feet drawn up under him, listening to the
gruesome slither of the mocca sinsalong the concrete floor just below
he was gripped for a minute by irresistible terror. It was all so
simple—so complete! And he had been calmly self-confident of his
ability to command the situation, to play these people's own game and
to beat them at it. Grinning and open-eyed he had marched into the
trap. He had been glad to let Hade and Standish think him safely out
of their way, and had planned so confidently to return by stealth to
the mainland that night and to Milo's house!
And now they had had absolutely no difficulty in caging him, and
in arranging that he should be put forever out of their way. The most
stringent inquiry—should any such be made —could only show that he
had been bitten once or more by a deadly snake. Any post-mortem would
bear out the statement.
It was known to every one that many of the keys—even several
miles from the mainland—are infested by rattlesnakes and by other
serpents, though how such snakes ever got to the islands is as much of
a mystery to the naturalist world as is the presence of raccoons and
squirrels on the same keys. It is simply one of the hundred
unsolvable mysteries and puzzles of the subtropic region.
In his jiu-jutsu instructions Brice had learned a rule which he
had carried into good effect in other walks of life. Namely to seem to
play one's opponent's game and to be fooled by it, and then, taking
the conquering adversary by surprise, to strike. Thus he had fallen
in with Standish's suggestion that he come to the island, though he
had thought himself fairly sure as to the reason for the request.
Thus, too, he had let himself be lured into this storeroom, still
smugly confident that he held the whip hand of the situation.
And as a result he was looking into the ghastly eyes of death.
Like an engine that "races," his fertile brain was unduly active
in this moment of stark horror, and it ran uselessly. Into his
over-excited mind flashed pictures of a thousand bits of the past—one
of them. by reason of recent association far more vivid than the
He saw himself with four other A.E.F. officers, standing in a dim
corner of a high-ceiled old room in a ruined chateau in Flanders. In
the room's center was a table. Around this were grouped a double
line of uniformed Americans—a court-martial. In came two provosts'
men leading between them a prisoner, a man in uniform and wearing the
insignia of a United States army major—the cleverest spy it was said
in all the Wilhehnstrasse's pay, a genius who had grown rich at his
filthy trade of selling out his country's secrets. and who had been
caught at last by merest chance.
The prisoner had glanced smilingly about the half-lit room as he
came in. For the barest fraction of a second his gaze had flickered
over Gavin Brice and the three other officers who stood there in the
shadow. Then, with that same easy. confident smile on his masklike,
pallid face, the spy had turned his glittering black eyes on the
officers at the courtmartial table.
"Gentlemen," he had said amusedly. "you need not go through the
farce of trying me. I am guilty. I say this with no bravado and with
no fear. Because the bullet has never been molded and the rope has
never been plaited that can kill me. And the cell is not yet made that
can hold me."
He had said it smilingly, and in a velvet suave voice. Yes, and
he had made good his boast. For—condemned to die at daylight—he had
escaped from his ill-constructed prison room in the chateau a little
before dawn and had gotten clean away after killing one of his guards.
"He never set eyes on me except for that instant, there in the
shadows," Brice found himself reflecting for the hundredth time.
"And there were all the others with me. Yet last night he recalled
my face. It's lucky he didn't recall where he'd seen it. Or—perhaps
With a start. he came out of his half-hypnotic daze—a daze which
had endured but a few seconds. And once more his rallying will-power
and senses made him acutely alive to the hideous peril in which he
Then—in one of the odd revulsions which flash across men at
unnaturally high tension—his daze and his terror merged all at once
into a blaze of wholesome rage. Nor was his rage directed against
Rodney Hade, but against Milo Standish, the man whose life he had
saved not twenty hours earlier, and who had repaid that mighty service
now by helping to arrange his murder.
At the thought Brice grew hot with fury. He longed to stand face
to face with the blackguard who had rewarded a life-gift in such vile
fashion. He yearned to tell Standish in fiery words how unspeakable
had been the action, and then foot to foot, fist to fist, to take out
of the giant's hide some tithe of the revenge due for such black
The ferocious impulse set steady his quivering nerves. No longer
did his brain race uselessly. Again it was alert, resourceful, keen.
Standish! Yes, and no doubt Standish's sister too! The girl
whose eyes had made him feel as if he were on holy ground—the girl
whom he had been so irritatingly unable to get out of his mind!
With an angry shake of the head Gavin dismissed Claire from his
thoughts. And his newborn hate concentrated on her brother who had
betrayed to death his rescuer. Obsessed with the fierce craving to
stand face to face with the blonde-bearded giant he banished his
lethargy of hopelessness and cast about for means of escape. out of
this seemingly inescapable snare.
First, the key must be found. Then the door must be reached and
opened. In the way of both enterprises writhed a half dozen or more
deadly snakes. And to the problem of winning past them alive and
getting to his enemy. Gavin Brice bent his trained faculties.
The box whereon he sat was covered with loose boards nailed down
only at one end, a long strip of thin iron or copper binding the one
unopened edge. So much his groping fingers told him. Moving to one
corner of the box top he pushed aside a board and plunged his hand
into the interior. It was as he had hoped. According to custom when
the box had been emptied the jute and shredded paper stuffing of its
contents had been thrust back into it for future use.
Feverishly, Gavin began to pull forth great handfuls of paper and
of excelsior. These he piled onto the box top. Then, exerting all
his skilled strength, he tugged at the narrow iron strip which bound,
lengthwise, one side of the box.
This task was by no means easy, for the nails were long. And the
iron's sharp edges cut cruelly into the tugging fingers. But, inch by
inch, he tore it free. And at the end of three minutes he was
strengthening and testing a willowy five-foot strip of metal. Laying
this across his knees and fishing up another double handful of the
packing paper and jute he groped in his pockets with bleeding
fingertips for a match.
He found but one. Holding it tenderly he scraped its surface
against his nail—a trick he had picked up in the army. The sulphur
snapped and ignited, the wooden sliver burning freely in that windless
Giving it a good start, he touched the point of flame to the piled
jute and paper in front of him. It caught in an instant. Still
holding the lighted match, he repeated this ticklish process time
after time, tossing handfuls of the blazing stuff down onto the floor
at his side.
In two minutes more he had a gayly-flaming pile of inflammable
material burning high there. Its gleam lightened every inch of the
gloomy room. It brought out into hideous clearness the writhing dark
bodies of the crawling moccasins, even to the patches of white at
their lips which gave them their sinister name of "cottonmouths." Fat
and short and horrible to look upon, they were, as they slithered and
twisted here and there along the bright-lit floor or coiled and hissed
at sight of the flame and of the fast plying hand and arm of the
captive just above them.
But Brice had scant eyes or heed for them. Now that his blaze was
started past danger of easy extinction. he plunged both hands again
into the box. And now. two handfuls at a time. he began to cast
forth more and more of the stuffing.
With careful aim he threw it. Presently there was a wide line of
jute and paper extending from the main blaze across to the next box.
Then another began to pile up in an opposite direction, toward the
door. The fire ran greedily along these two lines of fuel.
Meantime the room was no longer so clearly lighted as at first.
For the smoke billowed up to the low roof, and in thick waves poured
out through the small ventilator. Such of it as could not find this
means of outlet doubled back floorward, filling the room with
chokingly thick fumes which wellnigh blinded and strangled the man and
blotted out all details of shape and direction.
But already Gavin Brice had slipped to the floor, his thin-shod
feet planted in the midst of the blaze, whose flames and sparks licked
eagerly at his ankles and legs.
Following the trail of fire which led to the box. Gavin strode
through the very center of this blazing path, heedless of the burns.
Well did he know the snakes would shrink away from actual contact
with the fire. And he preferred surface burns to a fatal bite in
ankle or foot.
As he reached the box its corners had already caught fire from the
licking flames below. Heaving up the burning receptacle. Brice looked
under it. There lay the rusty key, just visible through the lurid
smoke glare. But not ten inches away from the far side of it coiled a
moccasin, head poised threateningly as the box grazed it under Gavin's
Stooping, Brice snatched up a great bunch of the flaming paper and
flung it on the serpent's shining coils. In practically the same
gesture he reached with lightning quickness for the key.
By a few inches he had missed his hurried aim for the moccasin.
He had intended the handful of fire to land on the floor just in
front of it, thus causing it to shrink back. Instead the burning
particles had fallen stingingly among its coils.
The snake twisted its arrow-shaped head as if to see what had
befallen it. Then catching sight of Brice's swooping hand it struck.
But the glance backward and the incredibly quick withdrawal of the
man's hand combined to form the infinitesimal space which separated
Gavin from agonizing death. The snake's striking head missed the
fast-retreating fingers by less than a hair's breadth. The fangs met
on the wards of the rusty key Brice had caught up in his fingertips.
The force of the stroke knocked the key clatteringly to the floor.
Stepping back. Brice flung a second and better aimed handful of
the dwindling fire in front of the re-coiling reptile. It drew back
hissing. And as it did so. Gavin regained the fallen key.
Wheeling about choking and strangling from the smoke, his
streamingly smarting eyes barely able to discern the fiery trail he
had laid. Brice ran through the midst of the red line of embers to
the door. Reaching it he held the key in one hand while the sensitive
fingers of the other sought the keyhole.
After what seemed a century he found it, and applied and turned
the key in the stiff lock. With a fierce shove he pushed open the
door. Then as he was about to bound forth into the glory of the
sunset, he started back convulsively.
One moccasin had evidently sought outer air. With this in view it
had stretched itself along the crack of light at the foot of the door.
Now as the door flew wide the snake coiled itself to strike at the
man who had all but stepped on it.
Down whizzed the narrow strip of iron Gavin had wrenched from the
box as a possible weapon. And, though the impact cut Brice's fingers
afresh, the snake lay twisting wildly and harmlessly with a cloven
Over the writhing body sprang Gavin Brice and out into the sandy
open, filling his smoke-tortured lungs with the fresh sunset air and
blinking away the smoke-damp from his stinging eyes.
It was then he beheld running toward him three men. Far in the
van was Roke—his attention no doubt having been caught by the smoke
pouring through the ventilator. The two others were an undersized
conch and a towering Bahama negro. All three carried clubs, and a
pistol glittered in Roke's left hand.
Ten feet from the reeling Gavin. Roke opened fire. But, as he
did not halt when he pulled trigger, his shot went wild. Before he
could shoot again or bring his club into action. Brice was upon him.
Gavin smote once and once only with the willowy metal strip. But he
struck with all the dazzling speed of a trained saber fencer.
The iron strip caught Roke across the eyes, smartingly and with a
force which blinded him for the moment and sent him staggering back in
keen pain. The iron strip doubled uselessly under the might of the
blow, and Gavin dropped it and ran.
At top speed he set off toward the dock. The conch and the negro
were between him and the pier, and from various directions other men
were running. But only the Bahaman and the little conch barred his
actual line of progress. Both leaped at him at the same time, as he
came dashing down on them.
The conch was a yard or so in front of the negro. And now the
fugitive saw the Bahaman's supposed cudgel was an iron crowbar which
he wielded as easily as a wand. The negro leaped and at the same time
struck. But, by some queer chance, the conch, a yard ahead of him,
lost his own footing in the shifty sand just then and tumbled
He fell directly in the Bahaman's path. The negro stumbled over
him and plunged earthward, the iron bar flying harmless from his
"Good little Davy!" apostrophized Brice, as he hurdled the
sprawling bodies and made for the dock.
The way was clear, and he ran at a pace which would not have
disgraced a college sprinter. Once, glancing back over his shoulder,
he saw the Bahaman trying blasphemously to disentangle his legs from
those of the prostrate and wriggling Davy. He saw, too, Roke pawing
at his cut face with both hairy hands, and heard him bellowing
confused orders which nobody seemed to understand.
Arrived at the dock Gavin saw that Standish's launch was gone. So,
too, was the gaudy little motorboat wherein Rodney Hade had come to
the key. Two battered and paintless motor-scows remained, and one or
two disreputable rowboats.
It was the work of only a few seconds for Brice to cut loose the
moorings of all these craft and to thrust them far out into the blue
water, where wind and tide could be trusted to bear them steadily
farther and farther from shore.
Into the last of the boats—the speedier-seeming of the two
launches—Gavin sprang as he shoved it free from the float. And,
before the nearest of the island men could reach shore, he had the
motor purring. Satisfied that the tide had caught the rest of the
fleet and that the stiff tradewind was doing even more to send the
derelict boats out of reach from shore or from possible swimmers he
turned the head of his unwieldy launch toward the mainland, pointing
it northeastward and making ready to wind his course through the
straits which laced the various islets lying between him and his
"They'll have a sweet time getting off that key tonight," he
mused in grim satisfaction. "And, unless they can hail some passing
boat, they're due to stay there till Hade or Standish makes another
trip out .... Standish!"
At the name he went hot with wrath. Now that he had achieved the
task of winning free from his prison and from his jailors his mind
swung back to the man he had rescued and who had sought his death.
Anger at the black infamy burned fiercely in Brice's soul. His whole
brain and body ached for redress, for physical wild-beast punishment
of the ingrate. The impulse dulled his every other faculty. It made
him oblivious to the infinitely more important work he had laid out
No man can be forever normal when anger takes the reins. And, for
the time, Gavin Brice was deaf and blind to every motive or caution,
and centered his entire faculties on the yearning to punish Milo
Standish. He had fought like a tiger and had risked his own life to
save Standish from the unknown assailant's knife thrust. Milo, in
gross stupidity, had struck him senseless. And now, coldbloodedly,
he had helped to plan for him the most terrible form of death by
torture to which even an Apache could have stooped. Small wonder that
righteous indignation flared high within the fugitive!
Straight into the fading glory of the sunset. Brice was steering
his wallowing and leaky launch. The boat was evidently constructed
and used for the transporting of fruit from the key to the mainland.
She was slow and of deep draught. But she was cutting down the
distance now between Gavin and the shore.
He planned to beach her on the strip of sand at the bottom of the
mangrove swamp, and to make his way to the Standish house through the
hidden path whose existence Milo had that day poohpoohed. He trusted
to luck and to justice to enable him to find the man he sought when
once he should reach the house.
His only drawback was the fear lest he encounter Claire as well.
In his present wrathful frame of mind he had no wish to see or speak
with her, and he hoped that she might not mar by her presence his
encounter with her brother.
Between two keys wallowed his chugging boat and into a stretch of
clear water beyond. Then, skirting a low-lying reef, Gavin headed
direct toward the distant patch of yellowish beach which was his
The sun's upper edge was sinking below the flat skyline. Mauve
shadows swept over the aquamarine expanse of rippling water. The
horizon was dyed a blood-red which was merging into ashes of roses.
On golden Mashta played the last level rays of the dying sun,
caressing the wondrous edifice as though they loved it. The
subtropical night was rushing down upon the smiling world, and, as
ever, it was descending without the long sweet interval of twilight
that northern lands know.
Gavin put the tub to top speed as the last visible obstacle was
left behind. Clear water lay between him and the beach. And he was
impatient to step on land. Under the fresh impetus the rolling craft
panted and wheezed and made her way through the ripples at a really
As the shadows thickened Brice half-arose in his seat to get a
better glimpse of a little motorboat which had just sprung into view
from around the mangrove-covered headland that cut off the view of
Standish's mainland dock. The boat apparently had put off from that
pier. and was making rapid speed out into the bay almost directly
toward him. He could descry a figure sitting in the steersman's seat.
But by that ebbing light. he could discern only its blurred outline.
Before Gavin could resume his seat he was flung forward upon his
face in the bottom of his scow. The jar of the tumble knocked him
breathless. And as he scrambled up on hands and knees he saw what had
Foolish is the boatman who runs at full speed in some of the
southwestern reaches of Biscayne Bay—especially at dusk —without
up-to-date chart or a perfect knowledge of the bay's tricky soundings.
For the coral worm is tireless, and the making of new reefs is
The fast-driven launch had run, bow-on, into a tooth of coral
barely ten inches under the surface of the smooth water. And, what
with her impetus and the half-rotted condition of her hull, she struck
with such force as to rip a hole in her forward quarter, wide enough
to stick a derby hat through.
In rushed the water, filling her in an incredibly short time.
Settling by the head under the weight of this inpouring flood she
toppled off the tooth of reef and slid free. Then with a wallowing
dignity she proceeded to sink.
The iron sheathing on her keel and hull had not been strong enough
in its rusted state to resist the hammerblow of the reef. But it was
heavy enough, together with her big metal steering apparatus, to
counterbalance any buoyant qualities left in the wooden frame.
And. down she went, waddling like a fat and ponderous hen, into a
twenty-foot nest of water.
Gavin had wasted no time in the impossible feat of baling her or
of plugging her unpluggable leak. As she went swayingly toward the
bottom of the bay he slipped clear of her and struck out through the
The mangrove swamp's beach was a bare half-mile away. And the man
knew he could swim the intervening space. with ease. Yet the tedious
delay of it all irked him and fanned to a blind fury his rage against
Milo. Moreover, now, he could not hope to reach the hidden path
before real darkness should set in. And he did not relish the idea of
traversing its blind mazes without a glimmer of daylight to guide him.
Yet he struck out, stubbornly, doggedly. As he passed the tooth
of coral that had wrecked his scow the reef gave him a painful
farewell scrape on one kicking knee. He swam on fuming at this latest
Then to his ears came the steady purr of a motorboat. It was
close to him and coming closer.
"Boat ahoy!" he sang out treading water and raising himself as
high as possible to peer about him through the dusk.
"Boat ahoy!" he called again, shouting to be heard above the
motor's hum. "Man overboard! Ten dollars if you'll carry me to the
And now he could see against the paler hue of the sky. the dark
outlines of the boat's prow. It was bearing down on him. Above the
bow's edge he could make out the vague silhouette of a head and upper
Then into his memory flashed something which the shock of his
upsetting had completely banished. He recalled the motorboat which
had darted, arrow-like, out from around the southern edge of the
mangrove swamp, and which he had been watching when his scow went to
pieces on the reef.
If this were the same boat—if its steersman chanced to be Milo
Standish crossing to the key to learn if his murderplot had yet
culminated—so much the better! Man to man, there between sea and sky
in the gathering gloom, they could settle the account once and for
Perhaps Standish had recognized him. Perhaps he merely took him
for some capsized fisherman. In either event. a swimming man is the
most utterly defenseless of all creatures against attack from land or
from boat. And Gavin was not minded to let Standish finish his work
with boat-hook or with oar. If he and his foe were to meet it should
be on even terms.
The boat had switched off power and was coming to a standstill.
Gavin dived. He swam clean under the craft, lengthwise, coming up at
its stern and farthest from that indistinct figure in the prow.
As he rose to the surface he caught with both hands the narrow
overhang of the stern, and with a mighty heave he hoisted himself
hip-high out of the water.
Thence it was the work of a bare two seconds for him to swing
himself over the stern and to land on all fours in the bottom of the
boat. The narrow craft careened dangerously under such treatment.
But she righted herself, and by the time he had fairly landed upon
the cleated bottom. Brice was on his feet and making for the prow.
He was ready now for any emergency and could meet his adversary on
"Mr. Brice!" called the boat's other occupant, springing up, her
sweet voice trembling and almost tearful. "Oh, thank God you're safe!
I was so frightened!"
"Miss Standish!" sputtered Gavin, aghast. "Miss Standish!"
For a moment they stood staring at each other through the
darkness, wordless, breathing hard. Their quick breath and the
trickling of fifty runnels of water from Gavin's drenched clothes into
the bottom of the once-tidy boat alone broke the tense stillness of
sky and bay. Then:
"You're safe? You're not harmed?" panted the girl.
And the words brought back with a rush to Gavin Brice all he had
"Yes," he made harsh answer trying to steady his rage-choked
voice. "I am safe. I am not harmed. Apart from a few fire-blisters
on my ankles and the charring of my clothes and the barking of one
knee against a bit of submerged coral and the cutting of my fingers
rather badly and a few more minor mischances—I'm quite safe and none
the worse for the Standish family's charming hospitality. And, by the
way, may I suggest that it might have been better for your brother or
the gentle-hearted Mr. Hade to run across to the key to get news of
my fate, instead of sending a girl on such an errand? It's no
business of mine. of course. And I don't presume to criticize two
such noble heroes. But surely they ought not have sent you. If their
kindly plan had worked out according to schedule. I should not have
been a pretty sight for a woman to look at. by this time. I—"
"I—I don't understand half of the things you're saying!" she
cried, shrinking from his taunting tone as from a fist-blow. "They
don't make any sense to me. But I do see why you're so angry. And I
don't blame you. It was horrible! Horrible! It—"
"It was all that," he agreed drily, breaking in on her quivering
speech and steeling himself against its pitiful appeal. "All that.
And then some. And it's generous of you not to blame me for being
just the very tiniest least bit riled by it. That helps. I was
afraid my peevishness might displease you. My temper isn't what it
should be. If it were I should be apologizing to you for getting your
nice boat all sloppy like this."
"Please!" she begged. "Please! Won't you please try not to- -to
think too hardly of my brother? And won't you please acquit me of
knowing anything of it? I didn't know. Honestly. Mr Brice. I
didn't. When Milo came back home without you he told me you had
decided to stay on at Roustabout Key to help Roke, till the new
foreman could come from Homestead."
"Quite so," assented Gavin, his voice as jarring as a file's. "I
did. And he decided that I shouldn't change my mind. He—"
"It wasn't till half an hour ago," she hurried on. miserably.
"that I knew. I was coming down stairs. Milo and Rodney Hade were
in the music-room together. I didn't mean to overhear. But oh, I'm so
glad I did!"
"I'm glad it could make you so happy," he said. "The pleasure is
"All I caught was just this:" she went on. "Rodney was saying:
'Nonsense! Roke will have let him out before now. And there are worse
places to spend a hot afternoon in than locked snugly in a cool
"Are there?" interpolated Brice. "I'd hate to test that."
"All in a flash. I understood," she continued, her sweet voice
struggling gallantly against tears. "I knew Rodney didn't want us to
have any guests or to have any outsiders at all at our house. He was
fearfully displeased with us last night for having you there. It was
all we could do to persuade him that the man who had saved Milo's life
couldn't be turned out of doors or left to look elsewhere for work.
It was only when Milo promised to give you work at the key that he
stopped arguing and being so imperative about it. And when I heard
him speak just now about your being locked in a store room there. I
knew he had done it to prevent your coming back here for a while."
"Your reasoning was most unfeminine in its correctness," approved
Gavin, still forcing himself to resist the piteous pleading in her
He could see her flinch under the harshness of his tone as she
"And all at once I realized what it must mean to you and what you
must think of us—after all you'd done for Milo. And I knew how a
beast like Roke would be likely to treat you when he knew my brother
and Rodney had left you there at the mercy of his companionship.
There was no use talking to them. It might be hours before I could
convince them and make them go or send for you. And I couldn't bear
to have you kept there all that time. So I slipped out of the house
and ran to the landing. Just as I got out into the bay. I saw you
coming through that strait back there. I recognized the fruit
launch. And I knew it must be you. For nobody from the key would
have run at such speed toward that clump of reefs. You capsized.
before I could get to you, and—"
She shuddered, and ceased to speak. For another moment or two
there was silence between them. Gavin Brice's mind was busy with all
she said. He was dissecting and analyzing her every anxious word. He
was bringing to bear on the matter not only his trained powers of
logic but his knowledge of human nature.
And all at once he knew this trembling girl was in no way guilty
of the crime attempted against him. He knew, too, from the speech of
Hade's which she had just repeated. that Standish presumably had had
no part in the attempted murder, but that that detail had been devised
by Hade for Roke to put into execution. Nor. evidently had Davy been
let into the secret by Roke.
In a few seconds Brice had revised his ideas as to the afternoon's
adventures, and had come to a sudden decision. Speaking with careful
forethought and with a definite object in view, he said:
"Miss Standish. I do not ask pardon for the way I spoke to you
just now. And when you've heard why you won't blame me. I want to
tell you just what happened to me today from the time I set foot on
Roustabout Key. until I boarded this boat of yours. When you realize
that I thought your brother and probably yourself were involved in it
to the full you'll understand, perhaps, why I didn't greet you with
overmuch cordiality. Will you listen?"
She nodded her head, wordless, not trusting her voice to speak
further. And she sank back into the seat she had quitted. Brice
seated himself on the thwart near her, and began to speak, while the
boat, its power still shut off bobbed lazily on a lazier sea.
Tersely, yet omitting no detail except that of his talk with Davy,
he told of the afternoon's events. She heard, wide-eyed and breathing
fast. But she made no interruption, except when he came to the
episode of the moccasins she cried aloud in horror, and caught
unconsciously his lacerated hand between her own warm palms.
The clasp of her fingers, unintentional as it was. sent a strange
thrill through the man, and, for an instant, he wavered in his
recital. But he forced himself to continue. And after a few seconds
the girl seemed to realize what she was doing. For she withdrew her
hands swiftly, and clasped them together in her lap.
As he neared the end of his brief story she raised her hands
again. But they did not seek his. Instead she covered her horrified
eyes with them, and she shook all over.
When he had finished he could see she was fighting for
self-control. Then, in a flood, the power of speech came back to
"Oh!" she gasped. her flower-face white and drawn, in the faint
light. "Oh, it can't be. It can't! There must be a hideous mistake
"There is," he agreed. with a momentary return to his former
manner. "There was one mistake. I made it, by escaping. Otherwise
the plan was flawless. Luckily. a key had been left on the floor.
And luckily. I got hold of it. Luckily, too, I had a match with me.
And. if there are sharks as near land as this, luckily you happened
to meet me as I was swimming for shore. As to mistakes—. Have you a
From her pocket she drew a small electric torch she had had the
foresight to pick up from the hall table as she ran out. Gavin took it
and turned its rays on his wet ankles. His shoes and trouser-legs
still showed clear signs of the scorching they had received. And his
palms were cut and abraded.
"If I had wanted to make up a story," said he. "I could have
devised one that didn't call for such painful stage-setting."
"Oh, don't!" she begged. "Don't speak so flippantly of it! How
can you? And don't think for one instant. that I doubted your word.
I didn't. But it didn't seem possible that such a thing—Mr. Brice!"
she broke off earnestly. "You mustn't —you can't—think that Milo
knew anything of this! I mean about the—the snakes and all. He is
enough to blame—he has shamed our hospitality and every trace of
gratitude enough—by letting you be locked in there at all and by
consenting to have you marooned on the key. I'm not trying to excuse
him for that. There's no excuse. And without proof I wouldn't have
believed it of him. But at least you must believe he had no part
in—in the other—"
"I do believe it," said Gavin. gently. touched to the heart by
her grief and shame. "At first. I was certain he had connived at it.
But what you overheard proves he didn't."
"Thank you," she said simply.
This time it was his hand that sought hers. And, even as she, he
was unconscious of the action.
"You mustn't let this distress you so," he soothed. noting her
effort to fight back the tears. "It all came out safely enough.
But—I think I've paid to-day for my right to ask such a
question—how does it happen that you and your brother—you,
especially—can have sunk to such straits that you take orders meekly
from a murderer like Rodney Hade, and that you let him dictate what
guests you shall or shan't receive?"
She shivered all over.
"I—I have no right to tell you," she murmured. "It isn't my
secret. I have no right to say there is any secret. But there is!
And it is making my life a torture! If only you knew—if only there
were some one I could turn to for help or even for advice! But I'm
all alone. except for Milo. And lately he's changed so! I—"
She broke down all at once in her valiant attempt at calmness.
And burying her face in her hands again she burst into a tempest of
weeping. Gavin Brice, a lump in his own throat, drew her to him. And
she clung to his soaked coat lapels hiding her head on his drenched
There was nothing of love or of sex in the action. She was simply
a heartbroken child seeking refuge in the strength of some one older
and stronger than she. Gavin realized it, and he held her to him and
comforted her as though she had been his little sister.
Presently the passion of convulsive weeping passed, leaving her
broken and exhausted. Gavin knew the girl's powers of mental
resistance were no longer strong enough to overcome her need for a
comforter to whom she could unburden her soul of its miserable
She had drawn back from his embrace but she still sat close to
him, her hands in his, pathetically eager for his sympathy and aid.
The psychological moment had come and Gavin Brice knew it. Loathing
himself for the role he must play and vowing solemnly to his own heart
that she should never be allowed to suffer for any revelation she
might make, he said with a gentle insistence, "Tell me."
CHAPTER VII. SECRETS
There was a short silence. Brice looked anxiously through the
gathering darkness at the dimly seen face so near to his own. He
could not guess, for the life of him, whether the girl was silent
because she refused to tell him what he sought so eagerly to know, or
whether she was still fighting to control her voice.
As he sat gazing down at her, there was something so tiny, so
fragile, so helplessly trustful about her, that it went straight to
the man's heart. He had played and schemed and risked life itself for
this crucial hour, for this hour when he should have swept aside the
girl's possible suspicions and enlisted her complete sympathy for
himself and could make her trust him and feel keen remorse for the
treatment he had received.
Yes—he had achieved all this. And he had done infinitely more.
He had awakened in her heart a sense of loneliness and of need for
some one in whom she might confide.
He had done all this, had Gavin Brice. And, though he was not a
vain man, yet he knew he had done it cleverly. But, somehow—even as
he waited to see if the hour for full confidences were indeed ripe—he
was not able to feel the thrill of exultation which should belong to
the winner of a hard-fought duel. Instead, to his amazement, he was
aware of a growing sense of shame, of disgust at having used such
weapons against any woman, —especially against this girl whose
whiteness of soul and of purpose he could no longer doubt.
Then, through the silence and above the soft lap-lap-lap of water
against the idly drifting boat's side, Claire drew a deep breath. She
threw back her drooping shoulders and sat up, facing the man. And in
the dusk, Gavin could see the flash of resolve in her great eyes.
"Yes!" she said, impulsively. "Yes. I'll tell you. If it is
wrong for me to tell, then let it be wrong. I'm sick of mystery and
secrets and signals and suspense, and—oh, I'm sick of it all! And
it's—it's splendid of you to want to help me, after what has happened
to you through meeting me! It's your right to know."
She paused for breath. And again Gavin wondered at his own
inability to feel a single throb of gladness at having come so
triumphantly to the end of this particular road. Glumly, he stared
down at the vibrant little figure beside him.
"There is some of it I don't know, myself," she began. "And
lately I've found myself wondering if all I really know is true, or
whether they have been deceiving me about some of it. I have no right
to feel that way, I suppose, about my own brother. But he's so
horribly under Rodney Hade's influence, and—"
Again, she paused, seeming to realize she was wandering from the
point. And she made a fresh start.
"It all began as an adventure, a sort of game, more than in
earnest," she said. "At least, looking back, that's the way it seems
to me now. As a wonderfully exciting game. You see, everything down
here was so thrillingly exciting and interesting to me, even then."
"If you don't mind," she added, "I think I can make you understand
it all the better, if you'll let me go back to the beginning. I'll
make it as short as I can."
"I had been brought up in New York, except when we were in Europe
or when I was away at school. My father and mother never let me see
or know anything of real life. Dad was old, even as far back as I can
remember. Mother was his second wife. Milo's mother was his first
wife, and she died ever so long ago. Milo is twenty years older than
I am. Milo came down here on a cruise, when he got out of college.
And he fell in love with this part of the country. He persuaded Dad
to buy him a farm here, and he has spent fifteen years in building it
up to what it is now. He and my mother didn't didn't get on awfully
well together. So Milo spent about all his time down here, and I
hardly ever saw him. Then Dad and Mother died, within a day of each
other, during the flu epidemic. And Milo came on, for the funeral, of
course, and to wind up the estate. Then he wanted me to come down
here and live with him. He said he was lonely. And I was still
"I came here. And I've been here ever since. It is a part of the
world that throws a charm around every one who stays long enough under
its spell. And I grew to loving it as much as Milo did. We had a
beautiful life here, he and I and the cordial, lovable people who
became our friends. It was last spring that Rodney Hade came to see
us. Milo had known him, slightly, down here, years ago. He came back
here—nobody knows from where, and rented a house, the other side of
Coconut Grove, and brought his yacht down to Miami Harbor. Almost
right away, he seemed to gain the queerest influence over Milo. It
was almost like hypnotism. And yet, I don't altogether wonder. He
has an odd sort of fascination about him. Even when he is discussing
"He has three rooms in his house fitted up as a reptile zoo. He
collects them from everywhere. He says—and he seems to believe
it—that they won't hurt him and that he can handle them as safely as
if they were kittens. Just like that man they used to have in the
post office up at Orlando, who used to sit with his arms full of
rattlesnakes and moccasins, and pet them."
"Yes," said Gavin, absentmindedly, as he struggled against an
almost overmastering impulse which was gripping him. "I remember.
But at last one of his pets killed him. He—"
"How did you know?" she asked, surprised. "How in the world
should a newcomer from the North know about—"
"Oh, I read it in a Florida dispatch to one of the New York
papers," he said, impatient at his own blunder. "And it was such a
strange story it stuck in my memory. It—"
"Well," resumed Claire, "I think I've made you understand the
simple and natural things that led up to it all. And now, I'll tell
you everything, at least everything I know about it. It's—it's a
gruesome sort of story, and—and I've grown to hate it all so!" She
quivered. Then, squaring her young shoulders again, she continued:
"I don't ask you to believe what I'm going to tell you. But it's
all true. It began this way:
"One night, six months ago, as Milo and I were sitting on the
veranda, we heard a scream—a hideous sound it was—from the mangrove
swamp. And a queer creature in drippy white came crawling out of—"
Brice's monosyllable smashed into the current of her
scarce-started narrative with the jarring suddenness of a pistol
shot. She stared up at him in amaze. For, seen through the
starlight, his face was working strangely. And his voice was vibrant
with some mighty emotion.
"Wait!' he repeated. "You shan't go on. You shan't tell me the
rest. I'm a fool. For I'm throwing away the best chance that could
have come to me. I'm throwing it away with my eyes open, and because
I'm a fool."
"I—I don't understand," she faltered, bewildered.
"No," he said roughly. "You don't understand. That's just why I
can't let you go on. And, because I'm a fool, I can't play out this
hand, where every card is mine. I'll despise myself, always, for
this, I suppose. And it's a certainty that I'll be despised. It
means an end to a career I found tremendously interesting. I didn't
need the money it brought. But I—"
"What in the world are you talking about?" she demanded, drawing a
little away from him. "I—"
"Listen," he interrupted. "A lot of men, in my line and in
others, have come a cropper in their careers, because of some woman.
But I'm the first to come such a cropper on account of a woman with a
white soul and the eyes of a child,—a woman I scarcely know, and who
has no interest in me. But, to-night, I shall telegraph my
resignation. Some saner man can take charge. There are enough of our
men massed in this vicinity to choose from. I'm going to get out of
Florida and leave the game to play itself to an end, without me. I'm
an idiot to do it. But I'd be worse than an idiot to let you trust me
and let you tell me things that would wreck your half-brother and
bring sorrow and shame to you. I'm through! And I can't even be
"Mr. Brice," she said, gently, "I'm afraid your terrible
experiences, this afternoon and last evening, have unsettled your
mind, a little. Just sit still there, and rest. I am going to run
the boat to shore and—"
"You're right," he laughed, ruefully, as he made way for her to
start the engine. "My experiences have 'unsettled' my mind. And now
that I've spoiled my own game, I'll tell you the rest—as much of it
as I have a right to. It doesn't matter, any longer. Hade knows—or
at least suspects. That's why he tried to get me killed. In this
century, people don't try to have others killed, just for fun.
There's got to be a powerful motive behind it. Such a motive as made
a man last evening try to knife your half-brother. Such a motive as
induced Hade to get me out of the way. He knows. Or he suspects.
And that means the crisis must come, almost at once. The net will
close. Whether or not it catches him in it."
The boat was started and had gotten slowly under way. During its
long idleness it had been borne some distance to southwestward by tide
and breeze. Her work done, Claire turned again to Gavin.
"Don't try to talk," she begged—as she had begged him on the
night before. "Just sit back and rest."
"Even now, you don't get an inkling of it," he murmured mured.
"That shows how little they've taken you into their confidence. They
warned you against any one who might find the hidden path, and they
even armed you for such an emergency. Yet they never told you the Law
might possibly be crouching to spring on the Standish place, quite as
ferociously as those other people who are in the secret and who want
to rob Standish and Hade of the loot! And, by the way," he went on,
pettishly, still smarting under his own renunciation, "tell Hade with
my compliments that if he had lived as long in Southern Florida as I
have, he'd know mocking birds don't sing here in mid-February, and
he'd devise some other signal to use when he comes ashore by way of
that path and wants to know if the coast is clear."
And now, forgetful of the shadowy course wherewith she was guiding
the boat toward the distant dock—forgetful of everything—she dropped
her hand from the steering wheel and turned about, in crass
astonishment, to gaze at him.
"What—what do you mean?" she queried. "You know about the
"I know far too little about any of the whole crooked business!"
he retorted, still enraged at his own quixotic resolve. "That's what
I was sent here to clean up, after a dozen others failed. That's what
I was put in charge of this district for. That's what I could have
found out—or seventy per cent of it—if I'd had the sense not to stop
you when you started to tell me, just now."
"Mr. Brice," she said, utterly confused, "I don't understand you
at all. At first I was afraid that blow on the head, and then this
afternoon's terrible experiences, had turned your wits. But you don't
talk like a man who is delirious or sick. And there are things you
couldn't possibly know—that signal, for instance—if you were what
you seemed to be. You made me think you were a stranger in
Florida,—that you were down here, penniless and out of work. Yet now
you speak about some mysterious 'job' that you are giving up. It's
all such a tangle! I can't understand."
Brice tried to ignore the pitiful pleading—the childlike tremor
in her sweet voice. But it cut to the soul of him. And he replied,
"I let you think I was a dead-broke work-hunter. I did that,
because I needed to get into your brother's house, to make certain of
things which we suspected but couldn't quite prove. I am the ninth
man, in the past two months, to try to get in there. And I'm the
second to succeed. The first couldn't find out anything of use. He
could only confirm some of our ideas. That's the sort of a man he is.
A fine subordinate, but with no genius for anything else except to
obey orders. I was the only one of the nine, with brains, who could
win any foothold there. And now I'm throwing away all I gained,
because one girl happens to be too much of a child (or of a saint)
for me to lie to! I've reason to be proud of myself, haven't I?"
"Who are you?" she asked, dully bewildered under his fierce tirade
of self-contempt. "Who are you? What are you?"
"I'm Gavin Brice," he said. "As I told you. But I'm also a
United States Secret Service official—which I didn't tell you."
"No!" she stammered, shrinking back. "Oh, no!"
He continued, briskly:
"Your brother, and your snake-loving friend Rodney Hade, are
working a pretty trick on Uncle Sam. And the Federal Government has
been trying to block it for the past few months. There are plenty of
us down here, just now. But, up to lately, nothing's been
accomplished. That's why they sent me. They knew I'd had plenty of
experience in this region."
"Here? In Florida? But—"
"I spent all my vacations at my grandfather's place, below Coconut
Grove, when I was in school and in college and for a while afterward,
and I know this coast and the keys as well as any outsider can,—even
if I was silly enough to let my scow run into a reef to-night, that
wasn't here in my day. They sent me to take charge of the job and to
straighten out its mixups and to try to win where the others had
bungled. I was doing it, too,—and it would have been a big feather
in my cap, at Washington, when my good sense went to pieces on a reef
named Claire Standish,—a reef I hadn't counted on, any more than I
counted on the reef that stove in my scow, an hour ago."
She strove to speak. The words died in her parched throat. Brice
"I've always bragged that I'm woman-proof. I'm not. No man is.
I hadn't met the right woman. That was all. If you'd been of the
vampire type or the ordinary kind, I could have gone on with it,
without turning a hair. If you'd been mixed up in any of the criminal
part of it at all—as I and all of us supposed you must be—I'd have
had no scruples about using any information I could get from you.
But—well, tonight, out here, all at once I understood what I'd been
denying to myself ever since I met you. And I couldn't go on with it.
You'll be certain to suffer from it, in any case. But I'm strong
enough at the Department to persuade them you're innocent. I—"
"Do you mean," she stammered, incredulously, finding hesitant
words at last, "Do you mean you're a—a spy? That you came to our
house—that you ate our bread—with the idea of learning secrets that
might injure us? That you—? Oh!" she burst forth in swift
revulsion, "I didn't know any one could be so —so vile! I—"
"Wait!" he commanded, sharply, wincing nevertheless under the sick
scorn in her voice and words. "You have no right to say that. I am
not a spy. Or if I am, then every police officer and every detective
and every cross-examining lawyer is a spy! I am an official in the
United States Secret Service. I, and others like me, try to guard the
welfare of our country and to expose or thwart persons who are that
country's enemies or who are working to injure its interests. If that
is being a spy, then I'm content to be one. I—"
"If you are driven to such despicable work by poverty," she said,
unconsciously seeking excuse for him, "if it is the only trade you
know—then I suppose you can't help—"
"No," he said, unwilling to let her gain even this false
impression. "My grandfather, who brought me up—who owned the place
I spoke of, near Coconut Grove—left me enough to live on in pretty
fair comfort. I could have been an idler if I chose. I didn't
choose. I wanted work. And I wanted adventure. That was why I went
into the Secret Service. I stayed in it till I went overseas, and I
came back to it after the war. I wasn't driven into it by poverty.
It's an honorable profession. There are hundreds of honorable men in
it. You probably know some of them. They are in all walks of life,
from Fifth Avenue to the slums. They are working patriotically for
the welfare of the land they love, and they are working for pitifully
small reward. It is not like the Secret Service of Germany or of
oldtime Russia. It upholds Democracy, not Tyranny. And I'm proud to
be a member of it. At least, I was. Now, there is nothing left to me
but to resign. It—"
"You haven't even the excuse of poverty!" she exclaimed,
confusedly. "And you have not even the grace to feel ashamed
for—for your black ingratitude in tricking us into giving you
"I think I paid my bill for that, to some slight extent," was his
dry rejoinder. "But for my 'trickery,' your half-brother would be
dead, by now. As for 'ingratitude,' how about the trick he served me,
today? Even if he didn't know Hade had smuggled across a bagful of
his pet moccasins to Roke, yet he let me be trapped into that—"
"It's only in the Devil's Ledger, that two wrongs make a right!"
she flamed. "I grant my brother treated you abominably. But his
excuse was that your presence might ruin his great ambition in life.
Your only excuse for doing what you have done is the—the foul
instinct of the man-hunt. The—"
"The criminal-hunt," he corrected her, trying not to writhe under
her hot contempt. "The enemy-to-man hunt, if you like. Your
"My brother is not a criminal!" she cried, furiously. "You have
no right to say so. He has committed no crime. He has broken no
Again he looked down, searchingly, into her angry little face, as
it confronted him so fiercely in the starlight. And he knew she was
"Miss Standish," he said, slowly. "You believe you are telling
the truth. Your half-brother understood you too well to let you know
what he was really up to. He and Hade concocted some story—I don't
know what—to explain to you the odd things going on in and around
your home. You are innocent. And you are ignorant. It cuts me like
a knife to have to open your eyes to all this. But, in a very few
days, at most, you are bound to know."
"If you think I'll believe a word against my brother—especially
from a self-confessed spy—"
"No?" said Gavin. "And you're just as sure of Rodney Hade's noble
uprightness as of your brother's ?"
"I'm not defending Rodney Hade," said Claire. "He is nothing to
me, one way or the other. He—"
"Pardon me," interposed Brice. "He is a great deal to you. You
hate him and you are in mortal fear of him."
"If you spied that out, too—"
"I did," he admitted. "I did it, in the half-minute I saw you and
him together, last evening. I saw a look in your eyes—I heard a tone
in your voice—as you turned to introduce me to him—that told me all
I needed to know. And, incidentally, it made me want to smash him.
Apart from that—well, the Department knows a good deal about Rodney
Hade. And it suspects a great deal more. It knows, among minor
things, that he schemed to make Milo Standish plunge so heavily on
certain worthless stocks that Standish went broke and in desperation
raised a check of Hade's (and did it rather badly, as Hade had
foreseen he would, when he set the trap)—in order to cover his
"No!" she cried, in wrathful refusal to believe. "That is not
true. It can't be true! It is a—"
"Hade holds a mortgage on everything Standish owns," resumed
Brice, "and he has held that raised check over him as a
"Stop!" demanded Claire, ablaze with righteous indignation. "If
you have such charges to make against my brother, are you too much of
a coward to come to his house with me, now, and make them to his face?
"No," he said, without a trace of unwillingness or of bravado. "I
am not. I'll go there, with you, gladly. In the meantime—"
"In the meantime," she caught him up, "please don't speak to me.
And please sit in the other end of the boat, if you don't mind. The
air will be easier to breathe if—"
"Certainly," he assented, making his way to the far end of the
launch, while she seized the neglected steering wheel again. "And I
am sorrier than I can say, that I have had to tell you all this. If
it were not that you must know it, soon, anyway, I'd have bitten my
tongue out, sooner than make you so unhappy. Please believe that,
There was an earnest depth of contrition in his voice that checked
the icy retort she had been about to make. And, emboldened by her
silence, he went on:
"Hade needed your brother and the use of your brother's house and
land. He needed them, imperatively, for the scheme he was trying to
swing .... That was why he got Standish into his power, in the first
place. That was why he forced or wheedled him into this partnership.
The Standish house was built, in its original form, more than a
hundred years ago. In the days when Dade County and all this end of
Florida were in hourly dread of Seminole raids from the Everglade
country, and where every settler's house must be not only his castle,
"I'm sorry to have to remind you," she broke in, freezingly, "that
I asked you not to speak to me. Surely you can have at least that
much chivalry,—when I am helpless to get out of hearing from you.
You say you are willing to confront my brother with,
this—this—ridiculous charge. Very well. Till then, I hope you
"All right," he said, gloomily. "And I don't blame you. I'm a
bungler, when it comes to saying things to women. I don't know so
very much about them. I've read that no man really understands women.
And certainly I don't. By the way, the boat's run opposite that spit
of beach at the bottom of your mangrove swamp. If you're in a hurry,
you can land there, and we can go to the house by way of the hidden
path. It will cut off a mile or so. You have a flashlight. So—"
He let his voice trail away, frozen to silence by the rigidly
hostile little figure outlined at the other end of the boat by the
tumble of phosphorus in their wake.
Claire roused herself, from a gloomy reverie, enough to shift the
course of the craft and to head it for the dim-seen sandspit that was
backed by the ebony darkness of the mangrove swamp.
Neither of them spoke again, until, with a swishing sound and a
soft grate of the light-draught boat, the keel clove its way into the
offshore sand and the craft came to coughing halt twenty feet from
Claire roused herself, from a gloomy reverie in which she had
fallen. Subconsciously, she had accepted the man's suggestion that
they take the short cut. And she had steered thither, forgetful that
there was no dock and no suitable landing place for even so light a
boat anywhere along the patch of sandy foreshore.
Now, fast aground, she saw her absent-minded error. And she
jumped to her feet, vainly reversing the engine in an effort to back
free of the sand wherein the prow had wedged itself so tightly. But
Gavin Brice had already taken charge of the situation.
Stepping overside into the shallow water, he picked up the
astounded and vainly protesting girl, bodily, holding her close to
him with one arm, while, with his free hand he caught the painter and
dragged the boat behind him into water too low for it to float off
until the change of tide.
It was the work of a bare ten seconds, from the time he stepped
into the shallows until he had brought Claire to the dry sand of the
"Set me down!" she was demanding sternly, for the third time, as
she struggled with futile repugnance to slip from his gently firm
"Certainly," acquiesced Gavin, lowering her to the sand, and
steadying her for an instant, until her feet could find their
balance. "Only please don't glare at me as though I had struck you.
I didn't think you'd want to get those little white shoes of yours
all wet. So I took the liberty of carrying you. My own shoes, and
all the rest of me, are drenched beyond cure anyhow. So another bit
of immersion didn't do me any harm."
He spoke in a careless, matter-of-fact manner, and as he talked he
was leading the way up the short beach, toward the northernmost edge
of the mangrove swamp. Claire could not well take further offence at
a service which apparently had been rendered to her out of the merest
common politeness. So, after another icy look at his unconscious
back, she followed wordlessly in Brice's wake.
Now that he was on dry land again and on his way to the house
where, at the very least, a stormy scene might be expected, the man's
spirits seemed to rise, almost boyishly. The blood was running again
through his veins. The cool night air was drying his soaked clothes.
The prospect of possible adventure stirred him.
Blithely he sought the shoreward entrance to the hidden path, by
the mental notes he had made of its exact whereabouts when Bobby Burns
had happened upon its secret. And, in another half-minute he had
drawn aside the screen of growing boughs and was standing aside for
Claire to enter the path.
"You see," he explained, impersonally, "this path is a very nice
little mystery. But, like most mysteries, it is quite simple, when
once you know your way in and out of it. I knew where it was when I
was a kid, but I couldn't remember the spot where it came out here.
Back yonder, a bit to northward, I came upon Roke, yesterday. I
gather he had been visiting your house or Hade's, by way of the hidden
path, and was on his way back to his boat, to return to Roustabout
Key, when he happened upon Bobby Burns—and then on me. He must have
wondered where I vanished to. For he couldn't have seen me enter the
path. Maybe he mentioned that to Hade, too, this afternoon. If Hade
thought I knew the path, he'd think I knew a good deal more .... By
the way," he added, to the ostentatiously unlistening Claire, "that's
the second time you've stumbled. And both times, you were too far
ahead for me to catch you. This is the best part of the path,
too—the straightest and the least dark part. If we stumble here,
we'll tumble, farther on, unless you use that flashlight of yours.
May I trouble you to—?"
"I forgot," she said stiffly, as she drew the torch from her
pocket and pressed its button.
The dense black of the swamp was split by the light's white sword,
and softer beams from its sharp radiance illumined the pitch-dark
gloom for a few yards to either side of the tortuous path. The
shadows of the man and the woman were cast in monstrous grotesquely
floating shapes behind them as they moved forward.
"This is a cheery rambling-place," commented Gavin. "I wonder if
you know its history? I mean, of course, before Standish had it recut
and jacked up and bridged, and all that? This path dates back to the
house's first owners—in the Seminole days I was telling you about.
They made it as a quick getaway, to the water, in case a war-party of
Seminoles should drop in on them from the Everglades. I came through
here, once—oh, it must be twenty years ago—I was a school-kid, at
the time. An old Seminole chief, with the picturesque Indian name of
Aleck, showed it to me. His dad once cut off a party of refugees,
somewhere along here, on their way to the sea, and deleted them.
Several of the modern Seminoles knew the path, he said. But almost
no white men .... Get that queer odor, and that flapping sound over
to the left? That was a 'gator. And he seems to be fairly big and
alive, from the racket he made. Lucky we're on the path and not in
the undergrowth or the water!"
He talked on, as though not in the least concerned as to whether
or not she might hear or heed. And, awed by the gruesome stillness
and gloom of the place, Claire had not the heart to bid him be silent.
Any sound was better, she told herself, than the dead noiselessness
of the surrounding forest.
"That's the tenth mosquito I've missed," cheerily resumed Brice,
slapping futilely at his own cheek. "In the old days, they used to
infest Miami. Now they're driven back into the swamps. But they seem
just as industrious as ever, and every bit as hungry. It must be
grand to have such an appetite."
As Claire disregarded this flippancy, he fell silent for a space,
and together they moved on, through the thick of the swamp. Then:
"There's something I've been trying to figure out," he
recommenced, speaking more to himself than to Claire. "There must be
some sort of sense to all the signaling Hade does when he comes out of
this swamp, onto your lawn. If it was only that he doesn't want
casual visitors to know he has come that way, he could just as well go
around by the road to the south of the swamp, and come openly to the
house, by the front. And, if things are to be moved to or from the
house, they could go by road, at night, as well as through here.
There must be something more to it all. And, I have an idea I know
what it is .... That enclosed space, with the high palings and the
vines all over it, to the north of your house, I think you said that
was a little walled orchard where Standish is experimenting on some
'ideal' orange, and that he is so jealous of the secret process that
he won't even let you set foot in it. The funny part of it is:—"
He stopped short. Claire had been walking a few yards in advance,
and they had come out on the widest part of the trail, about midway
through the woods. To one side of the beaten path was a tiny
clearing. This clearing was strewn thick with a tangle of fallen
undergrowth, scarce two feet high at most.
And they reached it, the girl gave a little cry of fright and
stepped back, her hands reaching blindly toward Gavin, as if for
support or comfort. The gesture caused her to drop the flashlight.
Its button was "set forward," so it did not go out as it fell.
Instead, it rolled in a semi-circle, casting its ray momentarily in a
wide irregular arc as it revolved. Then it came to a stop, against
an outcrop of coral, with a force that put its sensitive bulb
permanently out of business.
But, during that brief circular roll of the light, Gavin Brice
caught the most fleeting glimpse of the sight that had caused Claire
to cry out and shrink back against him.
He had seen, for the merest fraction of a second, the upper half
of a man's body—thickset and hairy,—upright, on a level with the
ground, as though it had been cut in two and the legless trunk set up
By the time Brice's eyes could focus fairly upon this very
impossible sight, the half-body had begun to recede rapidly into the
earth, like that of an anglework which a robin pulls halfway out of
the lawn and then loses its grip on.
In practically the same instant, the rolling ray of light moved
past the amazing spectacle, and less than a second later bumped
against the fragment of coral—the bump which smashed its bulb and
left the two wanderers in total darkness for the remainder of their
Claire, momentarily unstrung, caught Gavin by the arm and clung to
him. He could feel the shudder of her slender body as it pressed to
his side for protection.
"What—what was it?" she whispered, tremblingly. "What was it?
Did I really see it? It it couldn't be! It looked—it looked like
a—a body that had been cut in half—and—and—"
"It's all right," he whispered, reassuringly, passing his arm
unchidden about her slight waist. "Don't be frightened, dear! It
wasn't a man cut in half. It was the upper half of a man who was
wiggling down into a tunnel hidden by that smother of underbrush ....
And here I was just wondering why people should bother to come all
the way through this path, instead of skirting the woods! Answers
furnished while you wait!"
Before he spoke, however, he had strained his ears to listen. And
the quick receding and then cessation of the sound of the scrambling
body in the tunnel had told him the seen half and the unseen half of
the intruder had alike vanished beyond earshot, far under ground.
"But what—?" began the frightened girl.
Then she realized for the first time that she was holding fast to
the man whom she had forbidden to speak to her. And she relinquished
her tight clasp on his arm.
"Stand where you are, a minute," he directed. "He's gone. There's
no danger. He was as afraid of us as you were of him. He ducked, like
a mud-turtle, as soon as he saw we weren't the people he expected.
Stay here, please. And face this way. That's the direction we were
going in, and we don't want to get turned around. I've got to crawl
about on all fours for a while, in the merry quest of the flashlight.
I know just about where it stopped."
She could hear him groping amid the looser undergrowth. Then he
got to his feet.
"Here it is," he reported. "But it wasn't worth hunting for. The
bulb's gone bad. We'll have to walk the rest of the way by faith.
Would you mind, very much, taking my arm? The path's wide enough for
that, from here on. It needn't imply that you've condoned anything I
said to you, out yonder in the boat, you know. But it may save you
from a stumble. I'm fairly sure-footed. And I'm used to this sort of
Meekly, she obeyed, wondering at her own queer sense of peace
under the protection of this man whom she told herself she detested.
The wiry strength of the arm, around which her white fingers closed
so confidingly, thrilled her. Against her will, she all at once lost
her sense of repulsion and the wrath she had beers storing against
him. Nor, by her very best efforts, could she revive her righteous
"Mr. Brice," she said, timidly, as he guided her with swiftly
steady step through the dense blackness, "perhaps I had no right to
speak as I did. If I did you an injustice—"
"Don't!" he bade her, cutting short her halting apology. "You
mustn't be sorry for anything. And I'd have bitten out my tongue
sooner than tell you the things I had to, if it weren't that you'd
have heard them, soon enough, in an even less palatable form.
Only—won't you please try not to feel quite as much toward me as I
felt toward those snakes of Hade's, this afternoon? You have a right
to, of course. But well, it makes me sorry I ever escaped from
The sincerity, the boyish contrition in his voice, touched her,
unaccountably. And, on impulse, she spoke.
"I asked you to say those things about Milo, to his face," she
began, hesitantly. "I did that, because I was angry, because I
didn't believe a word of them, and because I wanted to see you
punished for slandering my brother. I—I still don't believe a
single word of them. But I believe you told them to me in good faith,
and that you were misinformed by the Federal agents who cooked up the
absurd story. And—and I don't want to see you punished, Mr. Brice,"
she faltered, unconsciously tightening her clasp on his arm. "Milo is
terribly strong. And his temper is so quick! He might nearly kill
you. Take me as far as the end of the path, and then go across the
lawn to the road, instead of coming in. Please do!"
"That is sweet of you," said Gavin, after a moment's pause,
wherein his desire to laugh struggled with a far deeper and more
potent emotion. "But, if it's just the same to you, I'd rather—"
"But he is double your size," she protested, "and he is as strong
as Samson. Why, Roke, over at the Key, is said to be the only man who
ever outwrestled him! And Roke has the strength of a gorilla."
Gavin Brice smiled grimly to himself in the darkness, as he
recalled his own test of prowess with Roke.
"I don't think he'll hurt me overmuch," said he. "I thank you,
just the same. It makes me very happy to know you aren't—"
"Mr. Brice!" she cried, in desperation. "Unless you promise me
not to do as I dared you to—I shall not let you go a step farther
with me. I—"
"I'm afraid you'll have to let me take you the rest of the way,
Miss Standish," he said, a sterner note in his voice quelling her
protest and setting her to wondering. "If you like, we can postpone
my talk with Standish about the check-raising. But—if you care
anything for him, you'd best let me go to him as fast as we can
"Unless I read wrongly what we saw, back yonder in the clearing,"
he said, cryptically, "your brother is in sore need of every friend he
can muster. I had only a glimpse of our subterranean half-man. But
there was a gash across his eyebrow, and a mass of bruises on his
throat. If I'm not mistaken, I put them there. That was the man who
tried to knife Standish last evening. And, unless I've misread the
riddle of that tunnel, we'll be lucky to get there in time. There's
trouble ahead. All sorts of trouble."
CHAPTER VIII. THE SIEGE
"Trouble?" repeated Claire, questioningly. "You mean—?"
"I mean I've pieced it out, partly from reports and partly from my
own deductions and from the sight of that man, back there," said
Brice. "I may be wrong in all or in part of it. But I don't think I
am. I figure that that chap we saw half under ground, is one of a
clique or gang that is after something which Standish and Hade
have—or that these fellows think Hade and Standish have. I figure
they think your brother has wronged them in some way and that they are
even more keen after him than after Hade. That, or else they think
if they could put him out of the way, they could get the thing they
are after. That or both reasons."
"I learned that Standish has hired special police to patrol the
main road, after dark, under plea that he's afraid tramps might
trespass on his groves. But he didn't dare hire them to patrol his
grounds for fear of what they might chance to stumble on. And,
naturally, he couldn't have them or any one patrol the hidden path.
That's the reason he armed you and told you to look out for any one
coming that way. That's why you held me up, when I came through here,
yesterday. These must be people you know by sight. For you told me
you took me for some one else. This chap, back yonder, knows the
hidden path. And now it seems he knows the tunnel, too. If I'm right
in thinking that tunnel leads to the secret orchard enclosure, back of
your house, then I fancy Standish may be visited during the next half
hour. And, unless I'm mistaken, I heard more than one set of bare
feet scurrying down that tunnel just now. Our friend with the
bashed-in face was apparently the last of several men to slip into the
tunnel, and we happened along as he was doing it. If he recognized
you and saw you had a man as an escort, he must know we're bound for
your house. And he and the rest are likely to hurry to get there
ahead of us. That's why I've been walking you off your feet, in spite
of the darkness, ever since we left him."
"I—I only saw him for the tiniest part of a second," said Claire,
glancing nervously through the darkness behind her. "And yet I'm
almost sure he was a Caesar. He—"
"A Caesar?" queried Gavin, in real perplexity.
"That's the name the Floridian fishermen give to the family who
live on Caesar's Estuary," she explained, almost impatiently. "The
inlet that runs up into the mangroves, south of Caesar's Rock and
Caesar's Creek. Caesar was an oldtime pirate, you know. These people
claim to be descended from him, and they claim squatter's rights on a
tract of marsh-and-mangrove land down there. They call themselves all
one family, but it is more like a clan, Black Caesar's clan. They
have intermarried and others have joined them. It's a sort of
community. They're really little better than conchs, though they
fight any one who calls them conchs."
"Oh, Milo and Rodney Hade leased some land from the government,
down there. And that started the trouble."
Brice whistled, softly.
"I see," said he. "I gather there had been rumors of treasure,
among the Caesars—there always are, along the coast, here—and the
Caesars hadn't the wit to find the stuff. They wouldn't have. But
they guarded the place and always hoped to trip over the treasure some
day. Regarded it as their own, and all that. 'Proprietary rights'
theory, passed on from fathers to sons. Then Standish and Hade leased
the land, having gotten a better hint as to where the treasure was.
And that got the Caesars riled. Then the Caesars get an inkling that
Standish and Hade have actually located the treasure and are sneaking
it to Standish's house, bit by bit. And then they go still-hunting for
the despoilers and for their ancestral hoard."
"Why!" cried Claire, astounded. "That's the very thing you
stopped me from telling you! If you knew, all the time—"
"I didn't," denied Brice. "What you said, just now, about the
Caesars, gave me the clew. The rest was simple enough to any one who
knew of the treasure's existence. There's one thing, though, that
puzzles me—a thing that's none of my business, of course. I can
understand how Standish could have told you he and Hade had stumbled
onto a hatful of treasure, down there, somewhere, among the bayous and
mangrove-choked inlets. And I can understand how the idea of treasure
hunting must have stirred you. But what I can't understand is
this:—When Standish found the Caesars were gunning for him, why in
blue blazes did he content himself with telling you of it? Why didn't
he send you away, out of any possible danger? Why didn't he insist on
your running into Miami, to the Royal Palm or some lesser hotel, till
the rumpus was all over? Even if he didn't think the government knew
anything about the deal, he knew the Caesars did. And—"
"He wanted me to go to Miami," she said. "He even wanted me to go
North. But I wouldn't. I was tremendously thrilled over it all. It
was as exciting as a melodrama. And I insisted on staying in the
thick of it. I—I still don't see what concern it is of the United
States Government," she went on, rebelliously, "if two men find, on
their own leased land, a cache of the plunder stolen more than a
hundred years ago by the pirate, Caesar. It is treasure trove. And
it seems to me they had a perfect right—"
"Have you seen any of this treasure?" interposed Brice.
"No," she admitted. "Once or twice, bags of it have been brought
into the house, very late at night. But Milo explained to me it had
to be taken away again, right off, for fear of fire or thieves or—"
"And you don't know where it was taken to?"
"No. Except that Rodney has been shipping it North. But they
promised me that as soon—"
"I see!" he answered, as a stumble over a root cut short her words
and made her cling to him more tightly. "You are an ideal sister.
You'd be an ideal wife for a scoundrel. You would be a godsend to
any one with phoney stock to sell. Your credulity is perfect. And
your feminine curiosity is under lots better control than most
women's. I suppose they told you this so-called treasure is in the
form of ingots and nuggets and pieces-of-eight and
jewels-so-rich-and-rare, and all the rest of the bag of tricks
borrowed from Stevenson's 'Treasure Island'? They would!"
She showed her disrelish for his flippant tone, by removing her
hand from his arm. But at once the faint hiss of a snake as it glided
into the swamp from somewhere just in front of them made her clutch
his wet sleeve afresh. His hints as to the nature of the treasure had
roused her inquisitiveness to a keen point. Yet, remembering what he
had said about her praiseworthy dearth of feminine curiosity, she
approached the subject in a roundabout way.
"If it isn't gold bars and jewels and old Spanish coins, and so
forth," said she, seeking to copy his bantering tone, "then I suppose
it is illicit whiskey? It would be a sickening anticlimax to find
they were liquor-smugglers."
"No," Brice reassured her, "neither Standish nor Hade is a
bootlegger—nor anything so petty. That's too small game for them.
Though, in some parts of southern Florida, bootleggers are so thick
that they have to wear red buttons in their lapels, to keep from
trying to sell liquor to each other. No, the treasure is considerably
bigger than booze or any other form of smuggling. It—Hello!" he
broke off. "There's your lawn, right ahead of us. I can see patches
of starlight through that elaborate vine-screen draped so cleverly
over the head of the path. Now, listen, Miss Standish. I am going to
the house. But first I am going to see you to the main road. That
road's patroled, and it's safe from the gentle Caesars. I want you to
go there and then make your way to the nearest neighbor's. If there
is any mixup, we'll want you as far out of it as possible."
As he spoke, he held aside the curtain of vines, for her to step
out onto the starlit lawn. A salvo of barking sounded from the
veranda, and Bobby Burns, who had been lying disconsolately on the
steps, came bounding across the lawn, in rapture, at scent and step of
the man he had chosen as his god.
"Good!" muttered Brice, stooping to pat the frantically delighted
collie. "If he was drowsing there, it's a sign no intruders have
tried to get into the house yet. He's been here a day. And that's
long enough for a dog like Bobby to learn the step and the scent of
the people who have a right here and to resent any one who doesn't
belong. Now, what's the shortest way to the main road?"
"The shortest way to the house," called the girl, over her
shoulder, "is the way I'm going now."
"But, Miss Standish!" he protested. "Please—"
She did not answer. As he had bent to pat the collie, she had
broken into a run, and now she was half way across the lawn, on her
way to the lighted veranda. Vexed at her disobedience is not taking
his advice and absenting herself from impending trouble, Gavin Brice
followed. Bobby Burns gamboled along at his side, leaping high in the
air in an effort to lick Brice's face, setting the night astir with a
fanfare of joyous barking, imperiling Gavin's every step with his
whisking body, and in short conducting himself as does the average
high-strung collie whose master breaks into a run.
The noise brought a man out of the hallway onto the veranda, to
see the cause of the racket. He was tall, massive, clad in snowy
white, and with a golden beard that shone in the lamplight. Milo
Standish, as he stood thus, under the glow of the veranda lights, was
splendid target for any skulking marksman. Claire seemed to divine
this. For, before her astonished brother could speak, she called to
"Go indoors! Quickly, please!"
Bewildered at the odd command, yet impressed with its stark
earnestness, Milo took a wondering step backward, toward the open
doorway. Then, at sight of the running man, just behind his sister,
he paused. Claire's lips were parted, to repeat her strange order, as
she came up the porch steps, but Gavin, following her, called
"Don't worry, Miss Standish. They don't use guns. They're
knifers. The conchs have a holy horror of firearms. Besides, a shot
might bring the road patrol. He's perfectly safe."
As Gavin followed her up the steps and the full light of the lamps
fell on his face, Milo Standish stared stupidly at him, in blank
dismay. Then, over his bearded face, came a look of sharp annoyance.
"It's all right, Mr. Standish," said Gavin, reading his thoughts
as readily as spoken words. "Don't be sore at Roke. He didn't let me
get away. He did his best to keep me. And my coming back isn't as
unlucky for you as it seems. If the snakes had gotten me, there's a
Secret Service chap over there who would have had an interesting
report to make. And you'd have joined Hade and Roke in a murder
trial. So, you see, things might be worse."
He spoke in his wonted lazily pleasant drawl, and with no trace of
excitement. Yet he was studying the big man in front of him, with
covert closeness. And the wholly uncomprehending aspect of Milo's
face, at mention of the snakes and the possible murder charge,
completed Brice's faith in Standish's innocence of the trick's worst
Claire had seized her brother's hand and was drawing the
dumfounded Milo after her into the hallway. And as she went she
burst forth vehemently into the story of Brice's afternoon adventures.
Her words fairly fell over one another, in her indignant eagerness.
Yet she spoke wellnigh as concisely as had Gavin when he had
recounted the tale to her.
Standish's face, as she spoke, was foolishly vacant. Then, a
lurid blaze began to flicker behind his ice-blue eyes, and a brickish
color surged into his face. Wheeling on Gavin, he cried, his voice
choked and hoarse:
"If this crazy yarn is true, Brice, I swear to God I had no
knowledge or part in it! And if it's true, the man who did it
"That can wait," put in Brice, incisively. "I only let her waste
time by telling it, to see how it would hit you and if you were the
sort who is worth saving. You are. The Caesar crowd has found where
the tunnel-opening is,—the masked opening, back in the path. And the
last of them is on his way here, underground. The tunnel comes out, I
suppose, in that high-fenced enclosure behind the house, the enclosure
with the vines all over it and the queer little old coral kiosk in the
center, with the rusty iron door. The kiosk that had three bulging
canvas bags piled alongside its entrance, this morning,—probably the
night's haul from the Caesar's Estuary cache, waiting for Hade to get
a chance to run it North. Well, a bunch of the Caesars are either in
that enclosure by now, or forcing a way out through the rusty
old'rattletrap door of the kiosk. They—"
"The Caesars?" babbled Standish. "What what 'kiosk' are you
talking about?—I—That's a plantation for—"
"Shut up!" interrupted Brice, annoyed by the pitiful attempt to
cling to a revealed secret. "The time for bluffing is past, man! The
whole game is up. You'll be lucky to escape a prison term, even if
you get out of to-night's mess. That's what I'm here for. Barricade
the house, first of all. I noticed you have iron shutters on the
windows, and that they're new. You must have been looking for
something like this to happen, some day."
As he spoke, Brice had been moving swiftly from one window to
another, of the rooms opening out from the hallway, shutting and
barring the metal blinds. Claire, following his example, had run from
window to window, aiding him in his self-appointed task of barricading
the ground floor. Milo alone stood inert and dazed, gaping dully at
the two busy toilers. Then, dazedly, he stumbled to the front door
and pushed it shut, fumbling with its bolts. As in a drunken dream
"Three canvas bags, piled—?"
"Yes," answered Brice busily, as he clamped shut a long French
window leading out onto the veranda, and at the same time tried to
keep Bobby Burns from getting too much in his way. "Three of them. I
gather that Hade had taken them up to the path in his yacht's gaudy
little motorboat and carried them to the tunnel. I suppose you have
some sort of runway or hand car or something in the tunnel to make the
transportation easier than lugging the stuff along the whole length of
stumbly path, besides being safer from view. I suppose, too, he had
taken the stuff there and then came ahead, with his mocking-bird
signal, for you to go through the tunnel with him from the kiosk, and
bring them to the enclosure. Probably that's why I was locked into my
room. So I couldn't spy on the job. The bags are still there, aren't
they? He couldn't move them, except under cover of darkness. He'll
come for them to-night .... He'll be too late."
Working, as he cast the fragmentary sentences over his shoulder,
Gavin nevertheless glanced often enough at Standish's face to make
certain from its foolishly dismayed expression that each of his
conjectures was correct. Now, finishing his task, he demanded:
"Your servants? Are they all right? Can you trust them? Your
house servants, I mean."
"Y—yes," stammered Milo, still battling with the idea of bluffing
this calmly authoritative man. "Yes. They're all right. But where
you got the idea—"
"How many of them are there? The servants, I mean."
"Four," spoke up Claire, returning from her finished work, and
pausing on her way to do like duty for the upstairs windows. "Two men
and two women."
"Please go out to the kitchen and see everything is all right,
there," said Brice. "Lock and bar everything. Tell your two women
servants they can get out, if they want to. They'll be no use here
and they may get hysterical, as they did last night when we had that
scrimmage outside. The men-servants may be useful. Send them here."
Before she could obey, the dining room curtains were parted, and a
black-clad little Jap butler sidled into the hallway, his jaw adroop,
his beady eyes astare with terror, his hands washing each other with
"Sato!" exclaimed Claire.
The Jap paid no heed.
"Prease!" he chattered between castanet teeth. "Prease, I hear. I
scare. I no fightman. I go, prease! I s-s-s-s, I—"
Sato's scant knowledge of English seemed to forsake him, under the
stress of his terror. And he broke into a monkeylike mouthing in his
native Japanese. Milo took a step toward him. Sato screeched like a
stuck pig and crouched to the ground.
"Wait!" suggested Brice, going toward the abject creature. "Let me
handle him. I know a bit of his language. Miss Standish, please go
on with closing the rest of the house. Here, you!" he continued,
addressing the Jap. "Here!"
Standing above the quivering Jap, he harangued him in halting yet
vehement Japanese, gesticulating and—after the manner of people
speaking a tongue unfamiliar to them—talking at the top of his voice.
But his oration had no stimulating effect on the poor Sato. Scarce
waiting for Brice to finish speaking, the butler broke again into that
monkey-like chatter of appeal and fright. Gavin silenced him with a
threatening gesture, and renewed his own harangue. But, after perhaps
a minute of it, he saw the uselessness of trying to put manhood or
pluck into the groveling little Oriental. And he lost his own temper.
"Here!" he growled, to Standish. "Open the front door. Open it
good and wide. So!"
Picking up the quaking and chattering Sato by the collar, he half
shoved and half flung him across the hallway, and, with a final heave,
tossed him bodily down the veranda steps. Then, closing the door, and
checking Bobby Burns's eager yearnings to charge out after his beloved
deity's victim, Brice exclaimed:
"There! That's one thing well done. We're better off without a
coward like that. He'd be getting under our feet all the time, or
else opening the doors to the Caesars, with the idea of currying favor
with them. Where did you ever pick up such an arrant little poltroon?
Most Japs are plucky enough."
"Hade lent him to us," said Milo, evidently impressed by Brice's
athletic demonstration against the little Oriental. "Sato worked for
him, after Hade's regular butler fell ill. He—"
"H'm!" mused Brice. "A hanger-on of Hade's, eh? That may explain
it. Sato's cowardice may have been a bit of rather clever acting. He
saw no use in risking his neck for you people when his master wasn't
here. It was no part of his spy work to—"
"Spy work?" echoed Standish, in real astonishment. "What?"
"Let it go at that," snapped Brice, adding as Claire reentered the
room, followed by the lanky house-man, "All secure in the kitchen
quarters, Miss Standish? Good! Please send this man to close the
upstairs shutters, too. Not that there's any danger that the Caesars
will try to climb, before they find they can't get in on this floor.
The sight of the barred shutters will probably scare them off,
anyway. They're likely to be more hungry for a surprise rush, than
for a siege with resistance thrown in. If—"
He ceased speaking, his attention caught by a sight which, to the
others, carried no significance, whatever.
Simon Cameron, the insolently lazy Persian cat, had been awakened
from a nap in a rose-basket on the top of one of the hall bookcases.
The tramping of feet, the scrambling ejection of the Jap butler, the
clanging shut of many metal blinds—all these had interfered with the
calm peacefulness of Simon Cameron's slumbers.
Wherefore, the cat had awakened, had stretched all four shapeless
paws out to their full length in luxurious flexing, and had then
arisen majestically to his feet and had stretched again, arching his
fluffy back to an incredible height. After which, the cat had dropped
lightly to the floor, five feet below his resting place, and had
started across the hall in a mincing progress toward some spot where
his cherished nap could be pursued without so much disturbance from
All this, Brice had seen without taking any more note of it than
had the two others. But now, his gaze fixed itself on the animal.
Simon Cameron's flowingly mincing progress had brought him to the
dining room doorway. As he was about to pass through, under the
curtains, he halted, sniffed the air with much daintiness, then turned
to the left and halted again beside a door which flanked the dining
room end of the wide hall.
For an instant Simon Cameron stood in front of this. Then,
winding his plumed tail around his hips, he sat down, directly in
front of the door, and viewed the portal interestedly, as though he
expected a mouse to emerge from it.
It was this seemingly simple action which had so suddenly diverted
Gavin from what he had been saying. He knew the ways of Persian cats,
even as he knew the ways of collies. And both forms of knowledge had
more than once been of some slight use to him.
Facing Milo and Claire, he signed to them not to speak. Then,
making sure the house-man had gone upstairs, he walked up to Claire
and whispered, pointing over his shoulder at the door which Simon
Cameron was guarding:
"Where does that door lead to?"
The girl almost laughed at the earnestness of his question,
following, as it did, upon his urgent signal for silence.
"Why," she answered, amusedly, "it doesn't lead anywhere. It's the
door of a clothes closet. We keep our gardening suits and our
raincoats and such things in there. Why do you ask?"
By way of reply, Gavin crossed the hall in two silent strides, his
muscles tensed and his head lowered. Seizing the knob, he flung the
closet door wide open, wellnigh sweeping the indignant Simon Cameron
off his furry feet.
At first glance, the closet's interior revealed only a more or
less orderly array of hanging raincoats and aprons and overalls.
Then, all three of the onlooking humans focused their eyes upon a
pair of splayed and grimy bare feet which protruded beneath a somewhat
bulging raincoat of Milo's.
Brice thrust his arm in, between this coat and a gardening apron,
and jerked forth a silently squirming youth, perhaps eighteen years
old, swarthy and undersized.
"Well!" exclaimed Gavin, holding his writhing prize at arm's
length, "Simon Cameron must have a depraved taste in playmates, if he
tries to choose this one! A regular beach combing conch! Probably a
clay-eater, at that."
He spoke the words with seeming carelessness, but really with
deliberate intent. For the glum silence of a conch is a hard thing
for any outsider to break down. He recalled what Claire had said of
the Caesars' fierce distaste for the word "conch." Also, throughout
the South, "clay-eater," has ever been a fighting word.
Brice had not gauged his insults in vain. Instantly, the
captive's head twisted, like that of a pinioned pit terrier, in a
frenzied effort to drive his teeth into the hand or arm of his captor.
Failing this, he spluttered into rapid-fire speech.
"Ah'm not a conch!" he rasped, his voice sounding as rusty as an
unused hinge. "Ah'm a Caesar, yo' dirty Yank! Tuhn me loose, yo'!
Ah ain't hurt nuthin'."
"How did you get in here?" bellowed Milo, advancing threateningly
on the youth, and swinging aloft one of his hamlike fists.
The intruder stiffened into silence and stolid rigidity.
Unflinchingly, he eyed the oncoming giant. Brice motioned Standish
"No use," said he. "I know the breed. They've been kicked and
beaten and hammered about, till a licking has no terrors for them.
This sweet soul will stay in the silences, till—"
Again, he broke off speaking. And again on account of Simon
Cameron. The cat, recovering from the indignity of being brushed
from in front of the opening door, had returned to his former post of
watching, and now stood, tail erect and back arched, staring up at the
prisoner out of huge round green eyes. The sight of a stranger had
its wonted lure for the Persian.
The lad's impotently roving glance fell upon Simon Cameron. And
into his sullen face leaped stark terror. At sight of it, Gavin Brice
hit on a new idea for wringing speech from the captive.
He knew that the grossly ignorant wreckers and fisherfolk of the
keys had never set eyes on such an object as this, nor had so much as
heard of Persian cats' existence. The few cats they had seen were of
course of the alley-variety, lean and of short and mangy coat. Simon
Cameron's halo of wide-fluffing silver-gray fur gave him the
appearance of being double his real size. His plumed cheeks and
tasseled ears and dished profile and, above all, the weirdly staring
green eyes—all combined to present a truly frightful appearance to a
youth so unsophisticated as this and to any one as superstitious and
as fearful of all unknown things as were the conchs in general.
"Standish," said Brice, "just take my place for a minute as holder
of this conch's very ragged shirt collar. So! Now then:"
He stepped back, and picked up Simon Cameron in his arms. The cat
did not resent the familiarity, Gavin still being enough of a stranger
in the house to be of interest to the Persian. But the round green
eyes still remained fixed with unwinking intensity upon the newer and
thus more interesting arrival. Which is the way of a Persian cat.
Brice held Simon Cameron gingerly, almost respectfully, standing
so the huge eyes were able to gaze unimpeded at the gaping and shaking
boy. Then, speaking very slowly, in a deep and reverent voice, he
"Devil, look mighty close at that conch, yonder. Watch him, so's
you'll always remember him! Put the voodoo on him, Devil. Haunt him
waking, haunt him sleeping. Haunt him eating, haunt him drinking.
Haunt him standing and sitting, haunt him lying and kneeling. Rot
his bones and his flesh and—"
A howl of panic terror from the youth interrupted the solemn
incantation. The prisoner slumped to his knees in Standish's grasp,
weeping and jabbering for mercy. Brice saw the time was ripe for
speech and that the captive's stolid nerve was gone. Turning on him,
he said, sternly:
"If you'll speak up and answer us, truthfully, I'll make this
ha'nt take off the curse. But if you lie, in one word, he'll know it
and he'll tell me, and—and then I'll turn him loose on you. It's
your one chance. Want it?"
The youth fairly gabbled his eagerness to assent.
"Good!" said Brice, still holding Simon Cameron, lest the supposed
devil spoil everything by rubbing against the prisoner's legs and
purring. "First of all:—how did you get in here?"
The boy gulped. Gavin bent his own head toward the cat and seemed
about to resume his incantation. With a galvanic jump, the youth made
"Came by the path. Watched till the dawg run out in the road to
bark at suthin'. This man," with a jerk of his head toward his
captor, "this man went to the road after him. I cut across the grass,
yonder, and got in. They come back. I hid me in there."
"H'm! Why didn't you come by way of the tunnel, like the other
"Pop tol me not to. Sent me ahead. Said mebbe they moughtn't git
in here if the doors was locked early. Tol' me to hide me in the
house an' let 'em in, late, ef they-all couldn't git in no earlier, or
ef they couldn't cotch one of the two cusses outside the house."
"Good strategy!" approved Brice. "That explains why they haven't
rushed us, Standish. They came here in force, and most likely (if
they've gotten out of the enclosure, yet) they've surrounded the
house, waiting for you or Hade to come in or go out. If that doesn't
work, they plan to wait till you're asleep, and then get in, by this
gallant youngster's help, and cut your throat at their leisure and
loot the house and take a good leisurely hunt for the treasure. It
calls for more sense than I thought they had .... How did they find
the tunnel?" he continued, to the prisoner.
"They been a-huntin' fer it, nigh onto one-half of a year,"
sulkily returned the boy. "Pop done found it, yest'dy. Stepped into
it, he did, a walkin' past."
"The rumor of that tunnel has been hereabout for over a century,"
explained Brice, to the Standishes. "Just as the treasure-rumors
have. I heard of it when I was a kid. The Caesars must have heard
it, a thousand times. But, till this game started, there was no
impetus to look for it, of course. The tunnel is supposed to have been
dug just after that Seminole warparty cut off the refugees in the
path. By the way, Miss Standish, I didn't mention it while we were
still there, but the mangrove-swamp is supposed to be haunted by the
ghosts of those killed settlers."
Brother and sister glanced at each other, almost in guilt, as it
seemed to the observing Brice. And Claire said, shortly:
"I know. Every one around here has heard it. Some of the negroes
and even some of the more ignorant crackers declare they have heard
screams from the swamp on dark nights and that white figures have been
"So?" queried Brice. "Back in the boat, you were starting to tell
me how you sat on the veranda, one night, and heard a cry in the swamp
and then saw a white figure emerge from the path. Yes? I have a
notion that that white figure was responsible for the cry, and that
your brother and Rodney Hade were responsible for both. Wasn't that a
trick to scare off any chance onlookers, when some of the treasure was
to be brought here?"
"Yes," admitted Claire, shamefacedly, and she added: "Milo hadn't
told me anything about it. And Rodney thought I was at a dance at the
Royal Palm Hotel, that evening. I had expected to go, but I had a
headache. When the cry and the white form frightened me so, Milo had
to tell me what they both meant. That was how I found out, first, that
"Claire!" cried Standish in alarmed rebuke.
"It's all right, Standish," said Gavin. "I know all about it. A
good deal more than she does. And none of it from her, either. We'll
come to that, later. Now for the prisoner."
Turning to the glumly scowling youth, he resumed:
"How many of them are there in this merry little midnight murder
"I dunno," grunted the boy.
"Devil, is that true?" gravely asked Gavin, bending again toward
"Six!" babbled the lad, eagerly. "Pop and—"
"Never mind giving me a census of them," said Brice. "It wouldn't
do me any good. I've left my copies of 'Who's Who' and Burke's
Peerage at home. And they figured Mr. Standish and Mr. Hade would
both be here, to-night?"
"Most nights t'other one comes," said the boy. "I laid out yonder
and heern him, one night. Whistles like he's a mocking-bird, when he
gits nigh here. I told Pop an' them about that. They—"
"By the way," asked Gavin, "when your Pop came back from finding
the tunnel, last night, was he in pretty bad shape? Hey? Was he?"
"He were," responded the captive, after another scared look at
Simon Cameron. "He done fell into the tunnel, arter he step down it.
An' he bust hisself up, suthin' fierce, round the haid an' the
"I see," agreed Brice.
Then, to Standish:
"I think we've got about all out of the charming child that we can
expect to. Suppose we throw him out?"
"Throw him out?" echoed Milo, incredulously. "Do you mean, set
him free? Why, man he'd—"
"That's exactly what I mean," said Gavin. "I agree with
Caesar—Julius Caesar, not the pirate. Caesar used to say that it
was a mistake to hold prisoners. They must be fed and guarded and
they can do incalculable mischief. We've turned this prisoner inside
out. We've learned from him that six men are lurking somewhere
outside, on the chance that you or Rodney Hade may come out or come
in, so that they can cut you both off, comfortably, out there in the
dark, and carry on their treasure-hunt here. Failing that, they plan
to get in here, when you're asleep. All this lad can tell them is
that you are on your guard, and that there are enough of us to hold
the house against any possible rush. He can also tell them," pursued
Gavin, dropping back into his slowly solemn diction, "about this
devil—this ha'nt—that serves us, and of the curse—the voodoo—he
can put on them all if they try to harm us. We'll let him go. He was
sent on by the path because he went some time ahead of the rest, and
he didn't know the secret of the tunnel. In fact, none of them could
have known just where it ended here. But they'll know by now. He can
join them, if they're picketing the house. And he can tell them what
Strolling over to the front door, he unbarred it and opened it
wide, standing fearlessly in its lighted threshold.
"Pass him along to me," he bade Standish. "Or, you can let him
go. He won't miss the way out."
"But," argued Milo, stubbornly retaining his grip on the ragged
shirt collar, "I don't agree with you. I'm going to keep him here and
lock him up, till—"
He got no further. The sight of the open door leading to freedom
was too much for the youth's stolidity. Twisting suddenly, he drove
his yellow teeth deep into the fleshy part of Standish's hand. And,
profiting by the momentary slackening of Milo's grasp, he made one
wildly scrambling dive across the hall, vaulting over the excited
Bobby Burns (and losing a handful of his disreputable trousers to the
dog's jaws in the process) and volleying over the threshold with the
speed of an express train.
While Standish nursed his sorely-bitten hand, Brice watched the
lad's lightning progress across the lawn.
Then, still standing in the open doorway, he called back,
laughingly to the two others: "Part of my well-built scheme has gone
to smash. He didn't stop to look for any of his clansmen. Not even
the redoubtable Pop. He just beat it for the hidden path, without
hitting the ground more than about once, on the way. And he dived
into the path like a rabbit. He'll never stop till he reaches the
beach. And then the chances are he'll swim straight out to sea
without even waiting to find where the Caesars' boats are cached ....
Best get some hot water and iodine and wash out that bite, Standish.
Don't look so worried, Miss Standish! I'm in no danger, standing
here. In the first place, I doubt if they'll have the nerve to rush
the house at all,—certainly not yet, if they didn't recognize our
fast-running friend. In the second, they're after Hade and your
brother. And in this bright light they can't possibly mistake me for
either of them. Hello!" he broke off. "There went one of them, just
then, across that patch of light, down yonder. And, unless my eyes
are going back on me, there's another of them creeping along toward
the head of the path. They must have seen—or thought they saw—some
one dash down there, even if it was too dark for them to recognize
him. And they are trying to get some line on who he is .... The moon
is coming up. That won't help them, to any great extent."
He turned back into the room, partly shutting the door behind him.
But he did not finish the process of closing it.
For—sweet, faint, yet distinct to them all—the soaring notes of
a mocking-bird's song swelled out on the quiet of the night.
"Rodney Hade!" gasped Standish. "It's his first signal. He gives
it when he's a hundred yards from the end. Good Lord! And he's going
to walk straight into that ambush! It's—it's sure death for him!"
CHAPTER IX. THE FIGURE IN WHITE
For a moment none of the three spoke. Standish and his sister
stared at each other in dumb horror. Then Milo took an uncertain
step toward the door. Brice made no move to check him, but stood
looking quietly on, with the detached expression of a man who watches
an interesting stage drama.
Just within the threshold, Standish paused, irresolute, his
features working. And Gavin Brice, as before, read his emotions as
though they were writ in large letters. He knew Milo was not only a
giant in size and in strength, but that in ordinary circumstances or
at bay he was valiant enough. But it is one thing to meet casual
peril, and quite another to fare forth in the dark among six savage
men, all of whom are waiting avidly for the chance to murder.
A braver warrior than Milo Standish might well have hesitated to
face sure death in such a form, for the mere sake of saving a man whom
he feared and hated, and whose existence threatened his own good name
Wherefore, just within the shelter of the open door, the giant
paused and hung back, fighting for the nerve to go forth on his fatal
errand of heroism. Gavin, studying him, saw with vivid clearness the
weakness of character which had made this man the dupe and victim of
Hade, and which had rendered him helpless against the wiles of a
But if Standish hesitated, Claire did not. After one look of
scornful pity at her wavering half-brother, she moved swiftly past
him to the threshold. There was no hint of hesitation in her free
step as she ran to the rescue of the man who had ruined Milo's career.
And both onlookers knew she would brave any and all the dire perils
of the lurking marauders, in order to warn back the unconsciously
As she sped through the doorway, Brice came to himself, with a
start. Springing forward, he caught the flying little figure and
swung it from the ground. Disregarding Claire's violent struggles, he
bore her back into the house, shutting and locking the door behind her
and standing with his back to it.
"You can't go, Miss Standish!" he said, in stern command, as if
rebuking some fractious child. "Your little finger is worth more than
that blackguard's whole body. Besides," he added, grimly, "mocking
birds, that sing nearly three weeks ahead of schedule, must be
prepared to pay the bill."
She was struggling with the door. Then, realizing that she could
not open it, she ran to the nearest window which looked out on the
lawn and the path-head. Tugging at the sash she flung it open, and
next fell to work at the shutter-bars. As she threw wide the
shutters, and put one knee on the sill, Milo Standish caught her by
the shoulder. Roughly drawing her back into the room, he said:
"Brice is right. It's not your place to go. It would be suicide.
Useless suicide, at that. I'd go, myself. But- -but—"
"'They that take up the sword shall perish by the sword,'" quoted
Gavin, tersely. "The man who sets traps must expect to step into a
trap some day. And those Caesars will be more merciful assassins than
the moccasin snakes would have been .... He's taking plenty of time,
to cover that last hundred yards. Perhaps he met the conch boy,
running back, and had sense enough to take alarm."
"Not he," denied Standish. "That fool boy was so scared, he'd
plunge into the brush or the water, the second he heard Rodney's
step. Those conchs can keep as mum as Seminoles. He'd never let
Rodney see him or hear him. He—"
Standish did not finish his sentence. Into his slow-moving brain,
an idea dawned. Leaning far out of the window and shouting at the top
of his enormous lungs, he bawled through the night:
"Hade! Back, man! Go back! They'll kill you!"
The bull-like bellow might have been heard for half a mile. And,
as it ceased, a muffled snarling, like a dog's, came from the edge of
the forest, where waited the silent men whose knives were drawn for
And, in the same instant, from the head of the path, drifted the
fluting notes of a mocking bird.
Disregarding or failing to catch the meaning of the
thickly-bellowed warning, Rodney Hade was advancing nonchalantly upon
his fate. The three in the hallway crowded into the window-opening,
tense, wordless, mesmerized, peering aghast toward the screen of vines
which veiled the end of the path.
The full moon, which Brice had glimpsed as it was rising, a minute
or so before, now breasted the low tops of the orange trees across the
highroad and sent a level shaft of light athwart the lawn. Its clear
beams played vividly on the dark forest, revealing the screen of vines
at the head of the path, and revealing also three crouching dark
figures, close to the ground, at the very edge of the lawn, not six
feet from the path head.
And, almost instantly, with a third repetition of the mocking bird
call, the vine screen was swept aside. Out into the moonshine
sauntered a slight figure, all in white, yachting cap on head, lighted
cigarette in hand.
The man came out from the black vine-screen, and, for a second,
stood there, as if glancing carelessly about him. Milo Standish
shouted again, at the top of his lungs. And this time, Claire's
voice, like a silver bugle, rang out with his in that cry of warning.
But, before the dual shout was fairly launched, three dark bodies
had sprung forward and hurled themselves on the unsuspecting victim.
There was a tragically brief struggle. Then, all four were on the
ground, the vainly-battling white body underneath. And there was a
gruesome sound as of angry beasts worrying their meat.
Carried out of his own dread, by the spectacle, Milo Standish
vaulted over the sill and out onto the veranda. But there he came to
a halt. For there was no further need for him to throw away his own
life in the belated effort at rescue.
The three black figures had regained their feet. And, on the
trampled lawn-edge in front of them lay a huddle of white, with
darker stains splashed here and there on it. The body lay in an
impossible posture—a posture which Nature neither intends nor
permits. It told its own dreadful story, to the most uninitiated of
the three onlookers at the window.
With dragging feet, Milo Standish turned back, and reentered the
house, as he had gone out of it.
"I am a coward!" he said, heavily. "I could have saved him. Or we
could have fought, back to back, till we were killed. It would have
been a white man's way of dying. I am a coward!"
He sank down in a chair and buried his bearded face in his hands.
No one contradicted him or made any effort at comfort. Claire,
deathly pale, still crouched forward, staring blindly at the moveless
white figure at the head of the path.
"Peace to his soul!" said Brice, in a hushed voice, adding under
his breath: "If he had one!"
Then, laying his hand gently on Claire's arm, he drew her away
from the window and shut the blinds on the sight which had so
"Go and lie down, Miss Standish," he bade her. "This has been an
awful thing for you or any other woman to look on. Take a double dose
of aromatic spirits of ammonia, and tell one of the maids to bring you
some black coffee .... Do as I say, please!" he urged, as she looked
mutely at him and made no move to obey. "You may need your strength
and your nerve. And—try to think of anything but what you've just
seen. Remember, he was an outlaw, a murderer, the man who wrecked
your brother's honorable life, a thorough-paced blackguard, a man who
merits no one's pity. More than that, he was one of Germany's
cleverest spies, during the war. His life was forfeit, then, for the
injury he did his country. I am not heartless in speaking this way of
a man who is dead. I do it, so that you may not feel the horror of
his killing as you would if a decent man had died, like that. Now go,
Tenderly, he led her to the foot of the stairs. The house man was
just returning from the locking of the upstairs shutters. To him Brice
gave the order for coffee to be taken to her room and for one of the
maids to attend her there.
As she passed dazedly up the stairs, Gavin stood over the broken
giant who still sat inert and huddled in his chair, face in hands.
"Buck up!" said Brice, impatiently. "If you can grieve for a man
who made you his slave and—"
"Grieve for him?" repeated Standish, raising his haggard face.
"Grieve for him? I thank God he's dead. I hated him as I never
hated any one else or thought I could hate any one! I hated him as we
hate the man in whose power we are and who uses us as helpless pawns
in his dirty game. I'd have killed him long ago, if I had had the
nerve, and if he hadn't made me believe he had a charmed life. His
death means freedom to me- -glorious freedom! It's for my own foul
cowardice that I'm grieving. The cowardice that held me here while a
man's life might have been saved by me. That's going to haunt me as
long as I live."
"Bosh!" scoffed Gavin. "You'll get over it. Self-forgiveness is
the easiest blessing to acquire. You're better of it, already, or you
couldn't talk so glibly about it. Now, about this treasure-business:
You know, of course, that you'll have to drop it,—that you'll have to
give up every cent of it to the Government? If you can't find the
cache, up North, where Hade used to send it when he lugged it away
from here, it is likely to go a bit hard with you. I'm going to do
all I can to get you clear. Not for your own sake, but for your
sister's. But you'll have to 'come through, clean,' if I'm to help
you. Now, if you've got anything to say—"
He paused, invitingly. Milo gaped at him, the big bearded face
working convulsively. Nerves wrenched, easily dominated by a stronger
nature, the giant was struggling in vain to resume his pose of not
understanding Brice's allusions. Presently, with a sigh, that was more
like a grunt of hopelessness, he thrust his fingers into an inner
pocket of his waistcoat, and drew forth a somewhat tarnished silver
dollar. This he held toward Gavin, in his wide palm.
Brice took the coin from him and inspected it with considerable
interest. In spite of the tarnish and the ancient die and date, its
edges were as sharp and its surface as unworn as though it had been
minted that very year. Clearly, this dollar had jingled in no casual
pockets, along with other coins, nor had it been sweated or marred by
any sort of use.
"Do you know what that is?" asked Milo.
"Yes," said Brice. "It is a United States silver dollar, dated
"Do you know its value?" pursued Milo. "But of course you don't.
You probably think it is worth its weight in silver and nothing
"It is, and it isn't," returned Gavin. "If I were to take this
dollar, to-night, to the right groups of numismatists, they would pay
me anywhere from $3,000 to $7,000 for it."
"Oh!" exclaimed Standish, in visible surprise. "You know
something about numismatics, then?"
"Just a little," modestly admitted Brice. "In my work, one has to
have a smattering of it. For instance—if I remember rightly—there
are only three of these 1804 silver dollars generally known to be in
existence. That is why collectors are ready to pay a fortune for
authentic specimens of them, in good condition. Yes, a smattering of
numismatics may come in handy, at times. So does sailor lore. It
did, for instance, with a chap I used to know. He had read up, on
this special dollar. He was dead-broke. He was passing the
Gloucester waterfront, one day, and saw a dockful of rotting old
schooners that were being sold at auction for firewood and for such
bits of their metal as weren't rusted to pieces. He read the catalog.
Then he telegraphed to me to wire him a loan of one hundred dollars.
For the catalog gave the date of one schooner's building as 1804. He
knew it used to be a hard-and-fast custom of ship-builders to put a
silver dollar under the mainmast of every vessel they built, a dollar
of that particular year. He bought the schooner for $70. He spent
ten dollars in hiring men to rip out her mast. Under it was an 1804
dollar. He sold it for $3,600."
"Since you know so much about the 1804 dollar," went on Milo,
catechizingly, "perhaps you know why it is so rare? Or perhaps you
didn't add a study of American history to your numismatics?"
"The commonly accepted story goes," said Brice, taking no heed of
the sneer, "that practically the whole issue of 1804 dollars went
toward the payment of the Louisiana Purchase money, when Uncle Sam
paid Napoleon Bonaparte's government a trifle less than $15,000,000
(or under four cents an acre) for the richest part of the whole United
States. Payment was made in half a dozen different forms,—in
settlement of anti-French claims and in installment notes, and so
forth. But something between a million and two million dollars of it
is said to have been paid in silver."
"Are you a schoolmaster, Mr. Brice?" queried Milo, who seemed
unable to avoid sneering in futile fashion at the man who was
dominating his wavering willpower.
"No, Mr. Standish," coolly replied the other. "I am Gavin Brice,
of the United States Secret Service."
Standish's bearded jaw dropped. He glanced furtively about him,
like a trapped rat. Gavin continued, authoritatively:
"You've nothing to fear from me, as long as you play straight. And
I'm here to see that you shall. Two hours ago, I was for renouncing
my life-work and throwing over my job. Never mind why. I've changed
my mind, now. I'm in this thing to the finish. With Hade out of the
game, I can see my way through."
"Now I'll finish the yarn you were so gradually leading up to with
those schoolboy questions of yours. French statesmen claimed, last
year, that something over a million dollars of the Louisiana purchase
money was never paid to France. That was money, in the form of silver
dollars, which went by sea. In skirting the Florida coast—probably on
the way from some mint or treasury in the South—one or more of the
treasure ships parted from their man-o'-war escorts in a hurricane,
and went aground on the southeastern Florida reefs. The black
pirate, Caesar, and his cutthroats did the rest.
"This was no petty haul, such as Caesar was accustomed to, and it
seems to have taken his breath away. He and his crew carried it into
Caesar's Estuary—not Caesar's Creek—an inlet, among the mangrove
swamps. They took it there by night, and sank it in shallow water,
under the bank. There they planned to have it until it might be safe
to divide it and to scatter to Europe or to some place where they
could live in safety and in splendor. Only a small picked crew of
Caesar's knew the hiding place. And, by some odd coincidence, every
man of them died of prussic acid poisoning, at a booze-feast that
Caesar invited them to, at his shack down on Caesar's creek, a month
later. Then, almost at once afterward, as you've probably heard,
Caesar himself had the bad luck to die with extreme suddenness.
"The secret was lost. Dozens of pirates and of wreckers
—ancestors of the conchs—knew about the treasure. But none of them
could find it.
"There was a rumor that Caesar had written instructions about it,
on the flyleaf of a jeweled prayer book that was part of some ship's
loot. But his heirs sold or hocked the prayer-book, at St. Augustine
or Kingston or Havana, before this story reached them. None of them
could have read it, anyhow. Then, last year, Rodney Hade happened
upon that book, (with the jewels all pried out of the cover, long
ago), in a negro cabin on Shirley Street, at Nassau, after hunting for
it, off and on, for years. The Government had been hunting for it,
too, but he got to it a week ahead of us. That was how we found who
had it. And that is why we decided to watch him .... Do you want me
to keep on prattling about these things, to convince you I'm what I
say I am? Or have you had enough?
"For instance, do you want me to tell you how Hade wound his web
around a blundering fool whose help and whose hidden path and tunnel
and caches he needed, in order to make sure of the treasure? Or is it
enough for me to say the dollars belong to the United States
Government, and that Uncle Sam means to have them back?"
Standish still gaped at him, with fallen jaw and bulging eyes.
Gavin went on:
"Knowing Hade's record and his cleverness as I do, I can guess how
he was going to swing the hoard when he finished transporting all of
it to safety. Probably, he'd clear up a good many thousand dollars by
selling the coins, one at a time, secretly, to collectors who would
think he was selling them the only 1804 dollar outside the three
already known to be in existence. When that market was glutted, he
was due to melt down the rest of the dollars into bar silver. Silver
is high just now, you know. Worth almost double what once it was.
The loot ought to have been much the biggest thing in his speckled
career. How much of it he was intending to pass along to you, is
another question. By the way—the three canvas bags he left out by
the kiosk ought to do much toward whetting the Caesars' appetite for
the rest. It may even key them up to rushing the house before
"We'll be ready for them!" spoke up Standish, harshly, as though
glad to have a prospect of restoring his broken self-respect by such a
"Quite so," agreed Gavin, smiling at the man's new ardor for
battle. "It would be a pleasant little brush—if it weren't for your
sister. Miss Standish has seen about enough of that sort of thing for
one night. If she weren't a thoroughbred, with the nerves of a
thoroughbred and the pluck as well, she'd be a wreck, from what has
happened already. More of it might be seriously bad for her."
Standish glowered. Then he lifted his bulky body from the low
chair and crossed the hall to the telephone. Taking the receiver
from the hook, he said sulkily to Brice:
"Maybe you're right. I have a couple of night watchmen patrolling
the road, above and below. I'll phone to the agency to send me half a
dozen more, to clear the grounds. I'd phone the police about it, but I
"Don't like to lock the stable door after the horse is stolen?"
suggested Brice. "Man, get it into that thick skull of yours that the
time for secrecy is past! Your game is up. Hade is dead. Your one
chance is to play out the rest of this hand with your cards on the
table. The Government knows you are only the dupe. It will let you
off, if the money is—"
"What in blue blazes is the matter with Central?" growled Milo,
whanging the receiver-hook up and down in vexation. "Is she dead?"
Gavin went over to him and took the receiver out of his hand.
Listening for a moment, he made answer:
"I don't believe Central is dead. But I know this phone is. Our
Caesar friends seem to be more sophisticated than I thought. They've
cut the wires, from outside."
"H'm!" grunted Milo. "That means we've got to play a lone hand.
Well, I'm not sorry. I—"
"Not necessarily," contradicted Gavin. "I'd rather have relied on
the local watchmen, of course. But their absence needn't bother us,
"What do you mean?"
Before Gavin could answer, a stifled cry from the hallway above
brought both men to attention. It was followed by a sound of lightly
running feet. And Claire Standish appeared at the stair-top. She was
deathly pale, and her dark eyes were dilated with terror.
Gavin ran up the steps to meet her. For she swayed perilously as
she made her way down toward the men.
"What is it?" demanded Milo, excitedly. "What's happened?"
Claire struggled visibly to regain her composure. Then, speaking
with forced calmness, she said:
"I've just seen a ghost! Rodney Hade's ghost!"
The two looked at her in dumb incomprehension. Then, without a
word, Milo wheeled and strode to the window from which they had
watched the tragedy. Opening the shutter, he peered out into the
"Hade's still lying where he fell," he reported, tersely. "They
haven't even bothered to move him. You were dreaming. If—"
"I wasn't asleep," she denied, a trace of color beginning to creep
back into her blanched cheeks. "I had just lain down. I heard—or
thought I heard—a sound on the veranda roof. I peeped out through
the grill of the shutter. There, on the roof, not ten feet away from
me, stood Rodney Hade. He was dressed in rags. But I recognized him.
I saw his face, as clearly as I see yours. He—"
"One of the Caesars," suggested Brice. "They found the lower
windows barred and they sent some one up, to see if there was any
ingress by an upper window. The porch is easy to climb, with all
those vines. So is the whole house, for that matter. He—"
"It was Rodney Hade!" she insisted, shuddering. "I saw his face
with the moonlight on it—"
"And with a few unbecoming scratches on it, too, from the
underbrush and from those porch vines," chimed in a suave voice from
the top of the stairs. "Milo, next time you bar your house, I suggest
you don't forget and leave the cupola window open. If it was easy for
me to climb up there from the veranda roof, it would be just as easy
for any of our friends out yonder."
Down the stairs—slowly, nonchalantly,—lounged Rodney Hade.
His classic mask of a face was marred by one or two scratches and
by a smudge of dirt. But it was as calm and as eternally smiling as
ever. In place of his wontedly correct, if garish, form of dress, he
was clad in ragged calico shirt and soiled drill trousers whose lower
portions were in ribbons. All of which formed a ludicrous contrast to
his white buckskin yachting shoes and his corded white silk socks.
Claire and the two men stood staring up at him in utter
incredulity. Bobby Burns broke the spell by bounding snarlingly
toward the unkempt intruder.
Brice absentmindedly caught the dog's collar as Bobby streaked
past him on his punitive errand.
"Hade!" croaked Standish, his throat sanded with horror. '"'Hade!
I—we—we saw you—murdered!"
Hade laughed pleasantly.
"Perhaps the wish was father to the thought?" he hinted, with an
indulgent twinkle in his perpetual smile. "I hate mysteries. Here's
an end to this one I was on my way along the path, when a young fellow
came whirling around a bend and collided with me. The impact knocked
him off his feet. I collared him. He didn't want to talk. But," the
smile twisting upward at one corner of the mouth in a look which did
not add to the beauty of the ascetic face, "I used persuasion. And I
found what was going on here. I stripped off my outer clothes, and
made him put them on. Then I put my yachting cap on him and pulled it
low over his eyes. And I bandaged his mouth with my handkerchief, to
gag him. Then I walked him along, ahead of me. I gave the signal.
And I stuck my cigarette in his hand and shoved him through the
screen of vines. They finished him, poor fool! I had no outer
clothes of my own. So I went back and put on his. Then I slipped
through that chuckle-headed aggregation out there and—here I am."
As he finished speaking, he turned his icy smile upon Gavin Brice.
"Roke signaled a fruit boat, Mr. Brice," said he, "and came over
to where my yacht was lying, to tell me you had gotten loose. That
was why I came here, tonight. He seems to think you know more than a
man should know and yet stay alive. And, as a rule, he is apt to be
"Miss Standish," interposed Gavin, "would you mind very much,
going into some other room? This isn't a pleasant scene for you."
"Stay where you are, for a minute, Claire!" commanded Milo,
shaking off a lethargy of wonder which had settled upon him, at sight
of his supposedly dead tyrant. "I want you to hear what I've got to
say. And I want you to endorse it. I've had a half hour of freedom.
And it's meant too much to me, to let me go back into the hell I've
lived through, this past few months."
He wheeled about on the newcomer and addressed him, speaking
loudly and rapidly in a voice hoarse with rage:
"Hade, I'm through! Get that? I'm through! You can foreclose on
my home here, and you can get me sent to prison for that check I was
insane enough to raise when I had no way out of the hole. But I'm
through. It isn't worth it. Nothing is worth having to cringe and
cheat for. I'm through cringing to you. And I'm through cheating the
United States Government. You weren't content with making me do that.
You tried, to-day, to make me a murderer—to make me your partner in
the death of the man who had saved my life. When I found that
out—when I learned what you could stoop to and could drag me to,—I
swore to myself to cut free from you, for all time. Now, go ahead and
do your dirtiest to me and to mine. What I said, goes. And it goes
for my sister, too. Doesn't it, dear girl?"
For answer, Claire caught her brother's big hand in both of hers,
and raised it to her lips. A light of happiness transfigured her
face. Milo pulled away his hand, bashfully, his eyes misting at her
wordless praise for his belatedly manly action.
"Good!" he approved, passing his arm about her and drawing her
close to him. "I played the cur once, this evening. It's good to
know I've had enough pluck to do this one white thing, to help make up
He faced Gavin, head thrown back, giant shoulders squared, eyes
"Mr. Brice," he said, clearly. "Through you, I surrender to the
United States Government. I'll make a signed confession, any time you
want it. I'm your prisoner."
Gavin shook his head.
"The confession will be of great service, later," said he, "and,
as state's evidence, it will clear you from any danger of punishment.
But you're not my prisoner. Thanks to your promise of a confession.
I have a prisoner, here. But it is not you."
"No?" suavely queried Hade, whose everlasting smile had not
changed and whose black eyes remained as serene as ever, through the
declaration of rebellion on the part of his satellite. "If Standish
is not your prisoner, he'll be the State of Florida's prisoner, by
this time to-morrow, when I have lodged his raised check with the
District Attorney. Think that over, Standish, my dear friend. Seven
years for forgery is not a joyous thing, even in a Florida prison.
Here, in the community where your family's name has been honored, it
will come extra hard. And on Claire, here, too. Mightn't it be better
to think that over, a minute or so, before announcing your virtuous
"Don't listen to him, Milo!" cried the girl, seizing Standish's
hand again in an agony of appeal, and smiling encouragingly up into
his sweating and irresolute face. "We'll go through any disgrace,
together. You and I. And after it's all over, I'll give up my whole
life to making you happy, and helping you to get on your feet again."
"There'll be no need for that, Miss Standish," said Brice. "Of
course, Hade can foreclose his mortgage on your half- brother's
property and call in Standish's notes,—if he's in a position to do
it, which I don't think he will be. But, as for the raised check,
why, he's threatening Standish with an empty gun. Hade, if ever you
get home again, look in the compartment of your strongbox where you
put the red-sealed envelope with Standish's check in it. The envelope
is still there. So are the seals. The check is not. You can verify
that, for yourself, later, perhaps. In the meantime, take my word
A cry of delight from Claire—a groan from Standish that carried
with it a world of supreme relief—broke in upon Gavin's recital.
Paying no heed to either of his hosts, Brice walked across to the
unmovedly smiling Hade, and placed one hand on the latter's shoulder.
"Mr. Hade," said he, quietly, "I am an officer of the Federal
Secret Service. I place you under arrest, on charges of—"
With a hissing sound, like a striking snake's, Rodney Hade shook
off the detaining hand. In the same motion, he leaped backward,
drawing from his torn pocket an automatic pistol.
Brice, unarmed, stood for an instant looking into the squat little
weapon's black muzzle, and at the gleaming black eyes in the
ever-smiling white face behind it.
He was not afraid. Many times, before, had he faced leveled guns,
and, like many another war-veteran, he had outgrown the normal man's
dread of such weapons.
But as he was gathering his strength for a spring at his opponent,
trusting that the suddenness and unexpectedness of his onset might
shake the other's aim, Rodney Hade took the situation into his own
Not at random had he made that backward leap. Still covering
Gavin with his pistol, he flashed one hand behind him and pressed the
switch-button which controlled the electric lights in the hallway and
the adjoining rooms.
Black darkness filled the place. Brice sprang forward through the
dark, to grapple with the man. But Hade was nowhere within reach of
Brice's outflung arms. Rodney had slipped, snakelike, to one side,
foreseeing just such a move on the part of his foe.
Gavin strained his ears, to note the man's direction. But Milo
Standish was thrashing noisily about in an effort to locate and seize
the fugitive. And the racket his huge body made in hitting against
furniture and in caroming off the walls and doors, filled the hall
Remembering at last the collie's presence in that mass of
darkness, Gavin shouted:
"Bobby! Bobby Burns! Take him!"
From somewhere in the gloom, there was a beast-snarl and a scurry
of clawed feet on the polished floor. At the same time the front door
Silhouetted against the bright moonlight, Brice had a momentary
glimpse of Hade, darting out through the doorway, and of a
tawny-and-white canine whirlwind flying at the man's throat.
But Brice's shout of command had been a fraction of a second too
late. Swiftly as had the collie obeyed, Rodney Hade had already
reached and silently unbarred the door, by the time the dog got under
way. And, as Bobby Burns sprang, the door slammed shut in his face,
leaving the collie growling and tearing at the unyielding panels.
Then it was that Claire found the electric switch, with her
groping hands, and pressed the button. The hall and its adjoining
rooms were flooded with light, revealing the redoubtable Bobby Burns
hurling himself again and again at the closed door.
Gavin shoved the angry dog aside, and opened the portal. He
sprang out, the dog beside him. And as they did so, both of them
crashed into a veranda couch which Hade, in escaping, had thrust
across the closed doorway in anticipation of just such a move.
Over went the couch, under the double impetus. By catching at the
doorway frame, Gavin barely managed to save himself from a nasty fall.
The dog disentangled himself from an avalanche of couch cushions and
made furiously for the veranda steps.
But Brice summoned him back. He was not minded to let Bobby risk
life from knife-cut or from strong, strangling hands, out there in the
perilous shadows beyond the lawn. And he knew the futility of
following Hade, himself, among merciless men and through labyrinths
with whose' windings Rodney was far more familiar than was he. So,
reluctantly, he turned back into the house. A glance over the moonlit
lawn revealed no sign of the fugitive.
"I'm sorry," he said to Standish, as he shut the door behind him
and patted the fidgetingly excited Bobby Burns on the head. "I may
never have such a good chance at him again. And your promise of a
confession was the thing that made me arrest him. Your evidence would
have been enough to convict him. And that's the only thing that could
have convicted him or made it worth while to arrest him. He's worked
too skillfully to give us any other hold on him .... I was a
thick-witted idiot not to think, sooner, of calling to Bobby. I'd
stopped him, once, when he went for Hade, and of course he wouldn't
attack again, right away, without leave. A dog sees in the dark, ten
times as well as any man does. Bobby was the solution. And I forgot
to use him till it was too late. With a collie raging at his throat,
Hade would have had plenty of trouble in getting away, or even in
using his gun. Lord, but I'm a dunce!"
"You're—you're,—splendid!" denied Claire, her eyes soft and
shining and her cheeks aglow. "You faced that pistol without one
atom of fear. And I could see your muscles tensing for a spring,
right at him, before the light went out."
Gavin Brice's heart hammered mightily against his ribs, at her
eager praise. The look in her eyes went to his brain. Through his
mind throbbed the exultant thought:
"She saw my muscles tense as he aimed at me. That means she was
looking at me! Not at him. Not even at the pistol. She couldn't
have done that, unless—unless—"
"What's to be done, now?" asked Milo, turning instinctively to
Gavin for orders.
The question brought the dazedly joyous man back to his senses.
With exaggerated matter-of-factness, he made reply:
"Why, the most sensible thing we can all do just now is to eat
dinner. A square meal works wonders in bracing people up. Miss
Standish, do you think you can rouse the maids to an effort to get us
some sort of food? If not, we can forage for ourselves, in the
icebox. What do you think?"
* * * * * * *
Two hours later—after a sketchy meal served by trembling-handed
servants—the trio were seated in the music-room. Over and over, a
dozen times, they had reviewed their position, from all angles. And
they had come to the conclusion that the sanest thing to do was to
wait in comfortable safety behind stoutly shuttered windows until the
dawn of day should bring the place's laborers back to work. Daylight,
and the prospect of others' presence on the grounds, was certain to
disperse the Caesars. And it would be ample time then to go to Miami
and to safer quarters, while Gavin should start the hunt after Rodney
Hade. The two men had agreed to divide the night into watches.
"One of the torpedo-boat destroyers down yonder, off Miami, can
ferret out Hade's yacht and lay it by the heels, in no time,"
explained Brice. "His house is watched, always, lately. And every
port and railroad will be watched, too. The chief reason I want to get
hold of him is to find where he has sent the treasure. You have no
idea, either of you?"
"No," answered Milo. "He explained to me that he was sending it
North, to a place where nobody could possibly find it, and that, as
soon as it was all there, he'd begin disposing of it. Then we were to
have our settlement, after it was melted down and sold."
"Who works with him? I mean, who helps him bring the stuff here?
Who, besides you, I mean?"
"Why, his yacht-crew," said Milo. "They're all picked men of his
own. Men he has known for years and has bound to himself in all sorts
of ways. He has only eleven of them, for it's a small yacht. But he
says he owns the souls of each and every one of the lot. He pays them
double wages and gives them a fat bonus on anything he employs them
on. They're nearly all of them men who have done time, and—"
"A sweet aggregation for this part of the twentieth century!"
commented Gavin. "I wish I'd known about all that," he added,
musingly. "I supposed you and one or two men like Roke were the
"Roke is more devoted to him than any dog could be," said Claire.
"He worships him. And, speaking of dogs, I left Bobby Burns in the
kitchen, getting his supper. I forgot all about him."
She set down Simon Cameron, who was drowsing in her lap, and got
to her feet. As she did so, a light step sounded in the hallway,
outside. Gavin jumped up and hurried past her.
He was just in time to see Rodney Hade cross the last yard or so
of the hallway, and unlock and open the front door.
The man had evidently entered the house from above, though all the
shutters were still barred and the door from the cupola had later been
locked. Remembering the flimsy lock on that door, Gavin realized how
Hade could have made an entrance.
But why Hade was now stealing to the front door and opening it,
was more than his puzzled brain could grasp. All this flashed through
Brice's mind, as he caught sight of his enemy, and at the same time he
was aware that Hade was no longer clad in rags, but wore a natty white
Before these impressions had had full time to register themselves
on Gavin's brain, he was in motion. This time, he was resolved, the
prey should not slip through his fingers.
As Brice took the first forward-springing step, Hade finished
unfastening the door and flung it wide.
In across the threshold poured a cascade of armed men. Hard-faced
and tanned they were, one and all, and dressed as yacht sailors.
Then Gavin Brice knew what had happened, and that his own life was
not worth a chipped plate.
CHAPTER X. THE GHOST TREE
Claire Standish had followed Brice to the curtained doorway of the
library. She, too, had heard the light step in the hall. Its sound,
and the galvanizing effect it had had on Gavin, aroused her sharp
She reached the hallway just in time to see Hade swing open the
door and admit the thronging group of sailors from his yacht.
But not even the sight of Hade, and these ruffians of his,
astounded her as did the action of Gavin Brice.
Brice had been close behind Hade as the door swung wide. His
incipient rush after his enemy had carried him thus far, when the
tables had so suddenly been turned against him and the Standishes.
Now, without pausing in his onward dash, he leaped past Hade and
straight among the in-pouring sailors.
Hade had not been aware of Brice's presence in the hall. The
sailors' eyes were momentarily dazzled by the brightness of the
lights. Thus, they did not take in the fact of the plunging figure,
in time to check its flight.
Straight through their unprepared ranks Gavin Brice tore his way.
So might a veteran football halfback smash a path through the
rushline of a vastly inferior team.
Hade cried out to his men, and drew his pistol. But even as he
did so, the momentarily glimpsed Gavin was lost to his view, amid the
jostling and jostled sailors.
Past the loosely crowding men, Brice ripped his way, and out onto
the veranda which he cleared at a bound. Then, running low, but still
at top speed, he sped around the bottom of the porch, past the angle
of the house and straight for the far side.
He did not make for the road, but for the enclosure into which he
had peeped that morning, and for the thick shade which shut off the
Now, he ran with less caution. For, he knew the arrival of so
formidable a body of men must have been enough to send the Caesars
scattering for cover.
Before he reached the enclosure he veered abruptly to one side,
dashing across a patch of moonlit turf, and heading for the giant live
oak that stood gauntly in its center.
Under the "Ghost Tree's" enormous shade he came to a stop,
glancing back to see if the direction of his headlong flight had been
noted. Above him towered the mighty corpse of what had once been an
ancestral tree. He remembered how it had stood there, bleakly, under
the morning sunlight,—its myriad spreading branches and twigs long
since killed by the tons of parasitical gray moss which festooned its
every inch of surface with long trailing masses of dead fluff.
Not idly had Brice studied that weird tree and its position. Now,
standing beneath its black shade, he drew forth a matchbox he had
taken from the smoking table after dinner.
Cautiously striking a match and shielding it in his cupped palms,
he applied the bit of fire to the lowest hanging spray of the
avalanche of dead gray moss.
A month of bone-dry weather had helped to make his action a
success. The moss ignited at first touch of the match. Up along the
festoon shot a tongue of red flame. The nearest adjoining branch's
burden of moss caught the fiery breath and burst into blaze.
With lightning speed, the fire roared upward, the branches to
either side blazing as the outsputtering flames kissed them.
In a little more than a breath, the gigantic tree was a roaring
sheet of red-and-gold-fire, a ninety-foot torch which sent its flood
of lurid light to the skies above and made the earth for a radius of
two hundred yards as bright as day.
Far out to sea that swirling tower of scarlet flame hurled its
illumination. For miles on every hand it could be seen. The sound
of its crackle and hiss and roar was deafening. The twigs, dry and
dead, caught fire from the surrounding blaze of moss, and communicated
their flame to the thicker branches and to the tree's towering summit.
And thus the fierce vividness of blazing wood was added to the
lighter glare of the inflammable moss.
The spectacle was incredibly beautiful, but still more awesome and
terrifying. The crackle and snap of burning wood broke forth on the
night air like the purr of fifty machine guns.
But Gavin Brice had not waited to gaze on what was perhaps the
most marvelous display of pyrotechnics ever beheld on the Florida
coast. At first touch of flame to the first festoon of moss, he had
taken to his heels.
Claire Standish gazed in unbelieving horror at the seemingly panic
flight of the man who had so strangely dominated her life and her
brother's, during these past few hours. He had faced death at Rodney
Hade's pistol, he had been lazily calm at the possibility of a rush
from the Caesars. He had shown himself fearless, amusedly
contemptuous of danger. Yet here be was fleeing for his very life and
leaving the Standishes at the mercy of the merciless!
More,—unless she had deceived herself, grossly, Claire had seen
in his eyes the lovelight that all his assumption of indifference had
not been able to quench. She had surprised it there, not once but a
score of times. And it had thrilled her, unaccountably. Yet, in
spite of that, he was deserting her in her moment of direst peril!
Then, through her soul surged the gloriously, divinely, illogical
Faith that is the God-given heritage of the woman who loves. And all
at once she knew this man had not deserted her, that right blithely he
would lay down his life for her. That, somehow or other, he had acted
for her good. And a feeling of calm exultation filled her.
Hade stood in the doorway, barking sharp commands to several of
his men, calling to them by name. And at each call, they obeyed, like
dogs at their master's bidding. They dashed off the veranda, in
varying directions, at a lurching run, in belated pursuit of the
Then, for the first time, Hade faced about and confronted the
unflinching girl and Standish who had lumbered dazedly out of the
library and who stood blinking at Claire's side.
Lifting his yachting cap, with exaggerated courtesy, Hade bowed to
them. The eternal smile on his face was intensified, as he glanced
from one to the other of the pair.
"Well," he said, and his black eyes strayed as if by accident to
Claire's face, "our heroic friend seems to have cracked under the
strain, eh? Cut and ran, like a rabbit. Frankly, my dear Milo, you'd
do better to put your reliance on me. A man who will run away,—with
a woman looking on, too—and leaving you both in the lurch, after
There was a clatter on the veranda, and Roke's enormous bulk
shouldered its way through what was left of the group of sailors, his
roustabout costume at ugly variance with their neat attire.
"Did you find him?" demanded Hade, turning at the sound.
"No!" panted Roke, in keen excitement. "But we'd better clear
out, Boss! All Dade County's liable to be here in another five
minutes. The old Ghost Tree's on fire. Listen! You can hear—"
He finished his staccato speech by lifting his hand for silence.
And, in the instant's hush could be heard the distant roar of a
"He didn't desert us!" cried the girl, in ecstatic triumph. "I
knew he didn't! I knew it! He—"
But Hade did not stop to hear her. At a bound he reached the
veranda and was on the lawn below, running around the side of the
house with his men trailing at his heels.
Out in the open, he halted, staring aghast at the column of fire
that soared heavenward and filled the night with lurid brightness.
Back to him, one by one, came the four sailors he had sent in pursuit
of Gavin. And, for a space, all stood gazing in silence at the
Roke broke the spell by tugging at Hade's coat, and urging
"Best get out, at the double-quick, Boss! This blaze is due to
bring folks a-runnin', an'—!"
"Well?" inquired Hade, impatiently. "What then? They'll find us
looking at a burning tree. Is there any law against that? I brought
you and the crew ashore, to-night, to help shift some heavy furniture
that came from up North last week. On the way, we saw this tree and
stopped to look at it. Where's the crime in that? You talk like a—"
"But if the Standishes blab—"
"They won't. That Secret Service sneak has bolted. Without him
to put backbone in them, they'll eat out of my hand. Don't worry.
"Here comes some of the folks, now," muttered Roke, as running
figures began to appear from three sides. "We'd be safer to—"
His warning ended in a gurgle of dismay.
From three points the twenty-five or thirty new arrivals continued
to run forward. But, at a word from some one in front of them, they
changed their direction, and wheeled in triple column, almost with the
precision of soldiers.
The shift of direction brought them converging, not upon the tree,
but upon the group of sailors that stood around Hade. It was this odd
change of course which had stricken Roke dumb.
And now he saw these oncomers were not farmhands or white-clad
neighbors, and that there were no women among them. They were men in
dark clothes, they were stalwart of build and determined of aspect..
There was a certain confident teamwork and air of professionalism
about them that did not please Roke at all. Again, he caught at his
master's arm. But he was too late.
Out of nothingness, apparently, darted a small figure, directly
behind the unsuspecting Hade. It was as though he had risen from the
With lightning swiftness, he attached himself to Rodney's throat
and right arm, from behind. Hade gave a convulsive start, and, with
his free hand reached back for his pistol. At the same time Roke
seized the dwarfish stranger.
Then, two things happened, at once.
Roke wallowed backward, faint with pain and with one leg numb to
the thigh, from an adroit smiting of his instep. The little
assailant's heel had come down with trained force on this nerve
center. And, for the moment, Roke was not only in agony but
The second thing to happen was a deft twist from the imprisoning
arm that was wrapped around Hade's throat from behind. At the
pressure, Rodney's groping hand fell away from his pistol pocket, and
he himself toppled, powerless, toward the ground, the skilled wrench
of the carotid artery and the nerves at the side of the throat
paralyzing him with pain.
Roke, rolling impotently on the earth, saw the little fellow swing
Hade easily over his shoulder and start for the house. At the same
time, he noted through his semi-delirium of agony that the stalwart
men had borne down upon the knot of gaping sailors, and, at
pistol-muzzle, had disarmed and handcuffed them.
It was all over in less than, fifteen seconds. But not before
Roke's beach combing wits could come to the aid of his tortured body.
Doubling himself into a muscular ball, he rolled swiftly under the
shadow of a sprawling magnolia sapling, crouching among the vine roots
which surround it. There, unobserved, he lay, hugging the dark ground
as scientifically as any Seminole, and moving not an eyelash.
From that point of vantage, he saw the dark-clothed men line up
their sullen prisoners and march them off to the road, where, a
furlong below, the fire revealed the dim outlines of several motor
cars. Other men, at the direction of the same leader who had
commanded the advance, trooped toward the house. And, as this leader
passed near the magnolia, Roke knew him for Gavin Brice.
From the edge of the veranda, Claire and Standish had witnessed
the odd drama. Wordless, stricken dumb with amazement, they gazed
upon the fire-illumined scene. Then, toiling across the grass toward
them came the little man who had overcome Rodney Hade. On his
shoulders, as unconcernedly as if he were bearing a light sack, he
carried the inert body of his victim. Straight past the staring
brother and sister he went, and around the house to the front steps.
Milo started to follow. But Claire pointed toward a clump of men
who were coming along not far behind the little burden-bearer. At
their head, hurried some one whose figure was silhouetted against the
waning tree-glare. And both the watchers recognized him.
Nearing the veranda, Brice spoke a few words to the men with him.
They scattered, surrounding the house. Gavin came on alone. Seeing
the man and girl above him, he put his hands up to the rail and
vaulted lightly over it, landing on the floor beside them.
"Come!" he said, briefly, leading the way around the porch to the
They followed, reaching the hallway just in time to see the little
man deposit his burden on the couch. And both of them cried-out in
astonishment. For the stripling who had reduced Rodney Hade to numb
paralysis was Sato, their own recreant Japanese butler.
At sight of them, he straightened himself up from the couch and
bowed. Then, in flawless English,—far different from the pigeon-talk
he had always used for their benefit,—he said respectfully, to Gavin:
"I brought him here, as you said, sir. He's coming around, all
right. After the pressure is off the carotid, numbness doesn't last
more than two minutes."
"Sato!" gasped Claire, unbelieving, while Milo gurgled, wordless.
The erstwhile butler turned back to the slowly recovering Hade.
Brice laughed at their crass astonishment.
"This is one of the best men in the Service," he explained. "It
was he who took a job under Hade and who got hold of that raised
check. Hade passed him on to you, to spy for him. He—"
"But," blithered Standish, "I saw him tackle Hade, before all the
crew. He was playing with death. Yet, when you tackled him, this
evening, he was scared helpless."
"He was 'scared' into coming into the room and asking in Japanese
for my orders," rejoined Brice. "I gave the orders, when you thought
I was airing my Jap knowledge by bawling him out. I told him to
collect the men we'd posted, to phone for others, and to watch for the
signal of the burning tree. If the Caesars weren't going to attack in
force, I saw no need in filling the house with Secret Service agents.
But if they should attack, I knew I could slip out, as far as that
tree, without their catching me. When Hade's tea-party arrived,
instead, I gave the signal. It was Sato who got my message across to
the key, this morning, too. As for my pitching him out of here, this
evening,—well, it was he who taught me all I know of jiu-jutsu. He
used to be champion of Nagasaki. If he'd chosen to resist, he could
have broken my neck in five seconds. Sato is a wonder at the game."
The Jap grinned expansively at the praise. Then he glanced at
Hade and reported:
"He's getting back his powers of motion, sir. He'll be all right
in another half-minute."
Rodney Hade sat up, with galvanic suddenness, rubbing his misused
throat and darting a swift snakelike glance about him. His eye fell on
the three men between him and the door. Then, at each of the two
hallway windows, he saw other men posted, on the veranda. And he
understood the stark helplessness of his situation. Once more the
masklike smile settled on his pallid face.
"Mr. Hade," said Brice, "for the second time this evening, I beg
to tell you you are my prisoner. So are your crew. The house is
surrounded. Not by Caesars, this time, but by trained Secret Service
men. I warn you against trying any charlatan tricks on them. They
are apt to be hasty on the trigger, and they have orders to shoot
"My dear Brice," expostulated Hade, a trifle wearily, "if we were
playing poker, and you held four aces to my two deuces- -would you
waste breath in explaining to me that I was hopelessly beaten? I'm no
fool. I gather that you've marched my men off to jail. May I ask why
you made an exception of me? Why did you bring me back here?"
"Can't you imagine?" asked Brice. "You say you're no fool. Prove
it. Prove it by -"
"By telling you where I have cached as much of the silver as we've
jettisoned thus far?" supplemented Hade. "Of course, the heroic
Standish will show you where the Caesar cache is, down there in the
inlet. But I am the only man who knows where the three-quarter
million or more dollars already salvaged, are salted down. And you
brought me here to argue me into telling? May I ask what inducements
"Certainly," said Gavin, without a moment's hesitation. "Though I
wonder you have not guessed them."
"Lighter sentence, naturally," suggested Hade. "But is that all?
Surely it's a piker price for Uncle Sam to pay for a gift of nearly a
million dollars. Can't you better it?"
"I am not the court," returned Brice, nettled. "But I think I can
promise you a fifty per cent reduction in what would be the average
sentence for such an offense, and a lighter job in prison than falls
to the lot of most Federal criminals."
"Good," approved Hade, adding: "But not good enough. I'm still in
the thirties. I'm tougher of constitution than I look. They can't
sentence me for more than a span of years. And when my term is up, I
can enjoy the little batch of 1804 dollars I've laid by. I think I'll
take my chance, unless you care to raise the ante."
Brice glanced around at the men who stood on the veranda. Then he
lowered his voice, so as not to be heard by them.
"You are under courtmartial sentence of death as a spy, Mr. Hade,"
he whispered. "The war is over. That sentence won't be imposed, in
full, I imagine, in times of peace. But your war record will earn you
an extra sentence that will come close to keeping you in Atlanta
Penitentiary for life. I believe I am the only member of the
Department who knows that Major Heidenhoff of the Wilhelmstrasse and
Rodney Hade are the same man. If I can be persuaded to keep that
knowledge from my superiors, in return for full information as to
where the 1804 dollars are cached—those you've already taken from the
inlet—and if the mortgage papers on this place are destroyed
"H'm!" mused Hade, his black eyes brooding and speculative. "H'm!
That calls for a bit of rather careful weighing. How much time will
you give me to think it over and decide? A week?"
"Just half an hour," retorted Gavin. "My other men, who took your
silly band of cutthroats to jail, ought to be back by then. I am
waiting here till they report, and no longer. You have half an hour.
And I advise you to make sane use of it."
Hade got slowly to his feet. The smile was gone from his lips.
His strange black eyes looked indescribably tired and old. There was
a sag to his alert figure.
"It's hard to plan a coup like mine," he sighed, "and then to be
bilked by a man with not one-tenth my brain. Luck was with you.
Blind luck. Don't imagine you've done this by your wits."
As he spoke he shuffled heavily to the adjoining music-room, and
let his dreary gaze stray toward its two windows. On the veranda,
framed in the newly unshuttered window-space, stood four Secret
Service men, grimly on guard.
Hade strode to one window after the other, with the cranky mien
and action of a thwarted child, and slammed the shutters together,
barring out the sinister sight of his guards. Gavin did not try to
prevent him from this act of boyish spite. The master-mind's
reaction, in its hour of brokenness, roused his pity.
From the windows, Hade's gloomy eyes strayed to the piano. On it
lay a violin case. He picked it up and took out an age-mellowed
"I think clearer when I play," he said, glumly, to Brice. "And
I've nearly a million dollars' worth of thinking to do in this half
hour. Is it forbidden to fiddle? Milo's father paid $4,000 for this
violin. It's a genuine Strad. And it gives me peace and clear
vision. May I play, or—?"
"Go ahead, if you want to," vouchsafed Gavin, fancying he read the
attempt of a charlatan to remain picturesque to the end. "Only get
your thinking done, and come to a decision before the half hour is up.
And, by the way, let me warn you again that those men out there have
orders to shoot, if you make a move to escape."
"No use in asking you to play my accompaniments, Claire?" asked
Hade, in pathetic attempt at gayety as he walked to the hallway door.
"No? I'm sorry. Nobody else ever played them as you do."
He tried to smile. The effort was a failure. He yanked the
curtains shut that hung between music room and hall. Then, at a
gesture from Gavin, he pulled them halfway open again, and, standing
in the doorway, drew his bow across the strings.
Gavin sat down on the long hall couch, a yard outside the
music-room door, beside Claire and the still stupefied Milo. The Jap
took up his position back of them, alert and tense as a fox terrier.
The three Secret Service men in the front doorway stood at attention,
yet evidently wondering at the prisoner's queer freak.
From under the deftly wielded bow, the violin wailed forth into
stray chords and phrases, wild, unearthly, discordant. Hade, his face
bent over the instrument, swayed in time with its undisciplined
Then, from dissonance and incoherence, the music merged into
Gounod's Ave Maria. And, from swaying, Hade began to walk. To and
fro, urged by the melody, his feet strayed. Now he was in full view,
between the half-open curtains. Now, he was hidden for an instant,
and then he was crossing once more before the opening.
His playing was exquisite. More—it was authoritative, masterly,
soaring. It gripped the hearers' senses and heartstrings. The beauty
and dreaminess of the Ave Maria flooded the air with loveliness.
Brice listened, enthralled. Down Claire's cheek rolled a teardrop, of
whose existence she was not even aware.
The last notes of the melody throbbed away. Brice drew a long
breath. Then, at once the violin spoke again. And now it sang forth
into the night, in the Schubert Serenade,—gloriously sweet, a surge
of passionate tenderness.
Back and forth, under the spell of his own music, wandered Hade.
Then he stopped. Gavin leaned forward. He saw that Hade was leaning
against the piano, as he played. His head was bowed over the
instrument as though in reverence. His black eyes were dreamy and
exalted. Gavin sat back on the couch and once more gave himself over
to the mystic enthrallment of the music. The Serenade wailed itself
into silence with one last hushedly exquisite tone. Brice drew a
long breath, as of a man coming out of a trance.
Simon Cameron had jumped into Claire's lap. But, receiving no
attention from the music-rapt girl, the cat now dropped to the floor,
and started toward the stairs.
At the same time, the violin sounded anew. And Gavin frowned in
disappointment. For, no longer was it singing its heart out in the
magic of an immortal melody. Instead, it swung into the once-popular
strains of "Oh, Promise Me!"
And now it seemed as though Hade were wantonly making fun of his
earlier beautiful playing and of the effect he must have known it had
had upon his hearers. For he played heavily, monotonously, more like
a dance-hall soloist than a master. And, as though his choice of an
air were not sharp enough contrast to his other selections, he
strummed amateurishly and without a shred of technique or of feeling.
Jarring as was the result upon Brice, it seemed even more so on
Simon Cameron. The cat had stopped in his progress toward the stairs,
and now stared round-eyed at the music-room doorway, his absurd little
nostrils sniffing the air. Then, deliberately, Simon Cameron walked
to the doorway and sat down there, his huge furry tail curled around
round him, staring with idiotic intentness at the player.
Gavin noted the cat's odd behavior. Simon Cameron was far too
familiar with Hade's presence in the house to give Rodney a second
glance. Indeed, he had only jumped up into Claire's lap, because the
fascinatingly new Secret Service men at the front door smelt strongly
of tobacco,—the smell a Persian cat hates above all others. But now,
he was gazing in delighted interest at the violinist.
At the sight, a wild conjecture flashed into Gavin's brain. With a
sharp order to the Jap, he sprang up and rushed into the music room.
Leaning against the piano, playing the rebellious violin, was
Rodney Hade had vanished.
The windows were still shuttered. No other door gave exit from
the music room. There were no hangings, except the door-curtains, and
there was no furniture behind which a child could hide unseen. Yet
Hade was no longer there.
Roke laid aside his violin, at sight of Gavin and the Jap. At the
former's exclamation of amaze, two more of the Secret Service men left
their post at the front door and ran in. The tramp of their hurrying
feet made the guards outside the open windows of the music room fling
wide the closed shutters. Clearly, Hade had not escaped past them.
Folding his arms, and grinning impudently at the astounded cordon
of faces, Roke drawled:
"I just dropped in to say 'Howdy' to Mr. Standish. Nobody was
around. So I made bold to pick up the fiddle and have a little
spiel. I ain't done any harm, and there's nothing you-all can hold me
For ten seconds nobody answered. Nobody spoke or moved. Then,
Gavin Brice's face went crimson with sudden fury at his own
outwitting. He recalled the musical afternoon at Roustabout Key which
his presence had interrupted, and Roke's fanatical devotion to Hade.
"I begin to understand," he said, his voice muffled in an attempt
to subdue his anger. "You and Hade were fond of the violin, eh? And
for some reason or other you long ago worked up a series of signals on
it, as the mind-reader with the guitar-accompanist used to do in the
vaudeville shows. Those discordant phrases he started off with were
your signal to come to the rescue. And you came. But how did you
come? And how did he go? Both by the same way, of course.
But—there isn't even a chimney-piece in the room."
Once more, Roke grinned broadly. "I ain't seen hide nor hair of
Mr. Hade, not since this afternoon," said he. "I been spendin' the
evenin' over to Landon's. Landon is a tryin' to sell me his farm.
Says the soil on it is so rich that he ships carloads of it up North,
to use for fertilizer. Says—"
"Sato!" broke in Brice. "Can you make him talk? Miss Standish,
will you please go somewhere else for five minutes? This is not going
to be a pretty sight."
As the girl turned, obediently yet reluctantly, from the room, the
Jap, with a smile of perfect bliss on his yellow face, advanced toward
The big man wheeled, contemptuously, upon him. Sato sprang at
him. With a hammerlike fist, Roke smote at the oncoming pigmy. The
arm struck, to its full length. But it did not reach its mark, nor
return to the striker's side. By a queerly crablike shift of his wiry
body, the Jap had eluded the blow, and had fastened upon the arm,
above the elbow and at the wrist.
A cross-pull wrench of the Jap's body brought a howl of pain from
Roke and sent him floundering helplessly to his knees, while the
merest leverage pressure from his conqueror held him there. But the
Jap was doing more. The giant's arm was bending backward and sideways
at an impossible angle. Nor could its owner make a move to avert the
growing unbearable torture. It was one of the simplest, yet one of
the most effective and agonizing, holds in all jiujutsu.
Thirty seconds of it, and Roke's bull-like endurance went to
pieces under the strain. Raucously and blubberingly he screeched for
mercy. The Jap continued happily to exert the cross-pull pressure.
"Will you speak up?" queried Brice, sickened at the sight, but
steeling himself with the knowledge of the captive's crimes and of
the vast amount at stake.
Roke rolled his eyes horribly, grinding his yellowed teeth
together to check his own cries. Then, sobbingly, he blurted:
"Yes! Lemme loose!"
"Not till you tell," refused Gavin. "Quick, now!"
"Second panel from left-hand window," moaned the stricken and
anguished Roke. "Push beading up and then to right. He's— he's
safe away, by now, anyway," he blubbered, in self-justification of the
confession which agony had wrung from him. "All you'll get is
And, the pain having eaten into his very brain, he yelled
Ten minutes later, Milo Standish sought out his sister, in the
upper room whither she had fled, in fear, to escape from the racket
of Roke's outcries.
"Listen!" he jabbered boyishly, in utter excitement. "Brice made
him tell how Rodney got out! How d'you s'pose? One of the old
panels, in the music room, slides back, and there's a flight of stone
steps down to a cellar that's right alongside our regular cellar, with
only a six inch cement-and-lath wall between. It leads out, to the
tunnel. Right at that turn where the old-time shoring is. The
shoring hides a little door. And we never dared move the props
because we thought it held up the tunnel-roof. It's all part of the
old Indian-shelter stunts that this house's builders were so daft
about, a hundred years ago. Hade must have blundered on it or
studied it out, one of those times when he used to go poking around
in the tunnel, all by himself. And—"
"Did Mr. Brice find him?" interposed Claire.
"Not he!" said Milo, less buoyantly. "Rodney had a good ten
minutes start of us. And with a start like that, they'll never lay
hands on him again. He's got too much cleverness and he knows too
many good hiding places. But Brice found the next best thing. You'd
never guess! Rodney's secret cache for the treasure was that
walled-up cellar. It's half full of canvas bags. Right under our
feet, mind you, and we never knew a thing about it. I supposed he was
shipping it North in some way. Roke says that Rodney kept it there
because, when he got it all, he was going to foreclose and kick us
out, and then dispose of it at his leisure. The swine!"
"The crypt seems to have been a part of our own cellar till it was
walled off. It—"
"But how in the world did Roke?"
"He was with the crew. Rodney and he went together to the yacht
for them. The Secret Service men didn't get him, in the round-up. He
crept as close to the house as he dared. And he heard Rodney sounding
the signal alphabet they had worked up, on the violin. He got into
the tunnel and so to the cellar, and then sneaked up, and took
Rodney's place at fiddling. He seems to have been as willing to
sacrifice himself for his master as any dog would have been. Or else
he counted on Brice's not having any evidence to hold him on.
"By the way, do you remember that conch, Davy, over at Roustabout
Key? Brice says he's a Secret Service man. He and Brice used to fish
together, off the keys, when they were boys. Davy volunteered for the
war. And Brice made good use of him, over there, and got him into the
Secret Service when they came back. It's all so queer—so—!"
"Is Mr. Brice still downstairs?" interrupted Claire, her eyes
straying involuntarily toward the door of the room.
"No. He had to go. He left his good-byes for you. His work here
is done. And he has to start for Washington on the 2 A.M. train from
Miami. By the way, the best part of it all is that he says a fugitive
from justice can't bring legal proceedings in a civil court. So
Rodney can never foreclose on us or take up those notes of mine.
Lord, but that chap, Brice, is a wonder!"
Vital as was the news about the notes and the mortgage, Claire
scarce heard it. In, her ears, and through the brain and heart of
her, rang drearily the words:
"He had to go. He left his good-byes for you. His work here is
His work was done! Yes. But was that to be all? Had the light
in his eyes and the vibrant tremor in his voice as he talked with
her—had these been part of his "work," too? Was it all to end, like
this,—and before it had begun?
To her own surprise and to her brother's greater astonishment, the
usually self-contained Claire Standish burst into a tempest of
"Poor, poor little girl!" soothed Milo. "It's all been too much
for you! No one could have stood up under such a strain. I'll tell
you what we're going to do: We're going to Miami, for a week or two,
and have a jolly time and make you try to forget all this mystery and
excitement. We'll go to-morrow morning, if you say so."
The Miami season was at its climax. The half-moon driveway
outside the front entrance to the Royal Palm Hotel was crowded thick
with waiting motor cars, whose occupants were at the hotel's
semi-weekly dance. On the brightlit front veranda men in white and in
dinner-clothes and women in every hue of evening dress were passing to
and fro. Elderly folk, sitting in deep porch chairs, watched through
the long windows the gayly-moving dancers in the ballroom. Out
through wide-open doors and windows pulsed the rhythmic music.
Above hung the great white stars in the blue-black Southern skies.
The bay stretched glimmering and phosphorescent away from the
palm-girt hotel gardens. The trade-winds set the myriad dry
palm-fronds to rustling like the downpour of summer rain.
Up the steps from the gardens drifted promenaders and dancers, in
groups or in twos and threes. Then, up the stairway moved a slender,
white-clad figure, alone.
Claire Standish had sought to do as her brother had wished, and to
forget, in the carefree life of the White City, the happenings she had
been through. Dutifully she had come to Miami with him. Dutifully,
for the past three days, she had joined him in such gayeties as he had
suggested. Dutifully, to-night, she had come with him to this dance.
And all the time her heart had been as heavy as lead.
Now, getting rid of her partner on some pretext, she had gone out
into the softly illumined gardens to be alone with the yearning and
heartache she could not shake off. Then, fearing lest Milo, or some
other of the men she knew, might come in search of her and wonder at
her desire to mope alone under the stars, she had turned back to the
As she mounted the last stair to the veranda, a man in dinner
clothes stepped forward from one of the porch's great white pillars,
and advanced to meet her.
"There's a corner table at the Cafe de la Paix, in Paris," he
greeted her, striving to control his voice and to speak lightly,
"that every one on earth must pass by, sooner or later. The front
veranda of the Royal Palm is like that. Soon or late, everybody
crosses it. When I got back this afternoon, I heard you had left home
and that you were somewhere in Miami. I couldn't find you. So I came
Claire had halted, at first sound of Gavin Brice's pleasantly slow
voice, and she stood facing him, wide-eyed and pale, her breath
"I had to go to Washington to make my report," said he, speaking
low and fast. "I came back to you by the first train I could catch.
Didn't you know I would?"
"Yes," she breathed, her gaze still lost in his. "Yes. I—I
And now she realized she had known, even while she had told
herself she would never see him again.
"Come!" he said, gently, holding out his hand to her.
Unashamed, under the battery of a hundred curious eyes, she
clasped the proffered hand. And, together, they turned back toward
the sheltering dimness of the gardens.