Albert Payson Terhune.

Black Caesar's Clan : a Florida Mystery Story online

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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 man.

"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 its victim.

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 head.

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 on.

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 shoes.

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 barrier.

"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 nest.

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
clearing beyond.

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 verge.

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 half-light.

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 it.

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 shoot!"




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 want - "

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
presence.

"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 said:

"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 collie.

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 tree-refuge.

"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 held. Come!"

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


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