Albert Payson Terhune.

Black Caesar's Clan : a Florida Mystery Story online

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"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 there."

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 travel."

"Why? Is - ?"

"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."

"But what - ?"

"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
in 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 him:

"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 reassuringly:

"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 features.


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
shall - "

"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 he mumbled:

"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 invisible soap-and-water.

"Sato!" exclaimed Claire.

The Jap paid no heed.

"Prease!" he chattered between castanet teeth. "Prease, I hear.
I scare. I no fight man. 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 noisy
humans.

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


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Online LibraryAlbert Payson TerhuneBlack Caesar's Clan : a Florida Mystery Story → online text (page 11 of 15)