Albert Payson Terhune.

Black Caesar's Clan : a Florida Mystery Story online

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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 back.

"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 intoned:

"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 answer:

"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 Caesars?"

"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 seen flitting - "

"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 they - "


"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 party?"

"I dunno," grunted the boy.

"Devil, is that true?" gravely asked Gavin, bending again
toward Simon Cameron.

"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 th'oat. He - "

"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 he knows."

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 and liberty.

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 master-mind.

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 oncoming Hade.

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 the killing.

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
horrified them.

"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, please."

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,


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