Albert Payson Terhune.

Black Caesar's Clan : a Florida Mystery Story online

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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 only - "

"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 yachting suit.

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 interest.

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 moon's light.

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
he 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 fleeing Brice.

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 promising to - "

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 million flames.

"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 awesome spectacle.

Roke broke the spell by tugging at Hade's coat, and urging
eagerly:

"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. They - "

"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 earth itself.

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 powerless.

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 front door.

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 if - "

"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 you offer?"

"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 - well - ?"

"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 violin.

"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 rhythm.

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


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Online LibraryAlbert Payson TerhuneBlack Caesar's Clan : a Florida Mystery Story → online text (page 14 of 15)