Albert Payson Terhune.

Black Caesar's Clan : a Florida Mystery Story online

. (page 3 of 15)
Online LibraryAlbert Payson TerhuneBlack Caesar's Clan : a Florida Mystery Story → online text (page 3 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


him or walking away. And he answered with perfect
simplicity:

"No, I wasn't walking for exercise or fun. There are better
and easier ways of acquiring fun than by plodding for hours in
the hot sunshine. And of getting exercise, too. I was on my
way to Homestead or to some farming place along the line,
where I might pick up a job."

"Oh!"

"Yes. I could probably have gotten a place as dishwasher or
even as a 'bus' or porter, in one of the big Miami hotels," he
pursued, "or a billet with one of the dredging gangs in the
harbor. But somehow I'd rather do farm work of some sort. It
seems less of a slump, when a chap is down on his luck, than
to go in for scrubbing or for section-gang hustling. There
are farms and citrus groves, all along here, just back of the
bay. And I'm looking for one of them where I can get a decent
day's work to do and a decent day's wages for doing it."

He spoke with an almost overdone earnestness. The girl was
watching him, attentively, a furrow between her straight
brows. Somehow, her level look made him uncomfortable. He
continued, with a shade less assurance:

"I was brought up on a farm, though I haven't been on one
since I was eighteen. I might have been better off if I'd
stayed there. Anyhow, when a man's prospects of starving are
growing brighter every day, a farm-job is about the pleasantest
sort of work he can find."

"Starving!" she repeated, in something like contempt. "If you
had been in this region a little longer - say, long enough to
pronounce the name, 'Miami' as it's pronounced down here,
instead of calling it 'Me-ah-mee,' as you did - if you'd been
here longer, you'd know that nobody need starve in Florida.
Nobody who is willing to work. There's the fishing, and the
construction gangs, and the groves, and the farms, and a
million other ways of making a living. The weather lets you
sleep outdoors, if you have to. The..."

"I've done it," he chimed in. "Slept outdoors, I mean. Last
night, for instance. I slept very snugly indeed, under a
Traveler Tree in the gardens of the Royal Palm Hotel. There
was a dance at the hotel. I went to sleep, under the stars,
to the lullaby of a corking good orchestra. The only drawback
was that a spooning couple who were engineering a 'petting
party,' almost sat down on my head, there in the darkness.
Not that I'd have minded being a settee for them. But they
might have told one of the watchmen about my being there. And
I'd have had to hunt other sleeping quarters."

She did not abate that look of quizzical appraisal. And again
Gavin Brice began to feel uncomfortable under her scrutiny.

"You have an orange grove, back yonder, haven't you?" he
asked, abruptly, nodding toward a landward stretch of ground
shut off from the lawn by a thickset hedge of oleander.

"How did you know?" she demanded in suspicion. "By this light
you couldn't possibly see - "

"Oddly enough," he said, in the pleasant drawling voice she
was learning to like in spite of her better judgment, "oddly
enough, I was born with a serviceable pair of nostrils. There
is a scent of orange blossoms hanging fairly strong in the
air. It doesn't come from the mangrove swamp behind me or
from the highroad in front of your house or from the big
garden patch to the south of the lawn. So I made a Sherlock
Holmes guess that it must be over there to northward, and
pretty close. Besides, that's the only direction the Trade
Winds could bring the scent from."

Again, she was aware of a certain glibness in his tone, - a
glibness that annoyed her and at the same time piqued her
curiosity.

"Yes," she said, none too cordially. "Our orange groves are
there. Why do you ask?"

"Only," he replied, "because where there are large citrus
groves on one side of a house and fairly big vegetable gardens
on the other, it means the need for a good bit of labor. And
that may mean a chance for a job. Or it may not. You'll pardon
my suggesting it.

"My brother needs no more labor," she replied. "At least, I
am quite certain he doesn't. In fact, he has more men working
here now than he actually needs. I - I've heard him say so.
Of course, I'll be glad to ask him, when he comes back from
town. And if you'd care to leave your address - "

"Gladly," said Brice. "Any letter addressed to me, as 'Gavin
Brice, in care of Traveler Tree, rear gardens of Royal Palm
Hotel,' will reach me. Unless, of course, the night watchmen
chance to root me out. In that case, I'll leave word with
them where mail may be forwarded. In the meantime, it's
getting pretty dark, and I don't know this part of Dade County
as well as I'd like to. So I'll be starting on. If you don't
mind, I'll cross your lawn, and take the main road. It's
easier going, at night than by way of the mangrove swamp and
the beach. Good night, Miss - "

"Wait!" she interposed, worry creeping into her sweet voice.
"I - I can't let you go like this. Do you really mean you have
to sleep out of doors and that you have no money? I don't
want to be impertinent, but - "

"'Nobody need starve in Florida,'" he quoted, gravely.
"'Nobody who is willing to work. The weather lets you sleep
outdoors.' (In which, the weather chimes harmoniously with my
pocketbook.) And, as I am extremely 'willing to work,' it
follows that I can't possibly starve. But I thank you for
feeling concerned about me. It's a long day since a woman has
bothered her head whether I live or die. Good night, again,
Miss - "

A second time, she ignored his hint that she tell him her
name. Too much worried over his light words and the real need
they seemed to cover, to heed the subtler intent, she said, a
little tremulously:

"I - I don't understand you, at all. Not that it is any
business of mine, of course. But I hate to think that any one
is in need of food or shelter. Your voice and your face and
the way you talk - they don't fit in with the rest of you.
Such men as yourself don't drift, penniless, through Lower
Florida, looking for day-laborer jobs. I can't understand - "

"Every one who speaks decent English and yet is down-and-out,"
he said, quietly, "isn't necessarily a tramp or a fugitive
from justice. And he doesn't need to be a man of mystery,
either. Suppose, let's say, a clerk in New York has been too
ill, for a long time, to work. Suppose illness has eaten all
his savings, and that he doesn't care to borrow, when he knows
he may never be able to pay. Suppose his doctor tells him he
must go South, to get braced up, and to avoid a New York
February and March. Suppose the patient has only about money
enough to get here, and relies on finding something to do to
keep him in food and lodging. Well - there's nothing
mysterious or especially discreditable in that, is there? ...
The dew is beginning to fall. And I'm keeping you out here in
the damp. Good night, Miss - Miss - "

"Standish," she supplied, but speaking absently, her
mind still perturbed at his plight. "My name is Standish.
Claire Standish."

"Mine is Gavin Brice," he said. "Good night. Keep hold of
Bobby Burns's collar, till I'm well on my way. He may try to
follow me. Good-by, old chap," he added, bending down and
taking the collie's silken head affectionately between his
hands. "You're a good dog, and a good pal. But put the soft
pedal on the temperamental stuff, when you're near Simon
Cameron. That's the best recipe for avoiding a scratched
nose. By the way, Miss Standish, don't encourage him to roam
around in the palmetto scrub, on your outings with him. The
rattlesnakes have gotten many a good dog, in Florida. He - "

"Mr. Brice!" she broke in. "If I offend you, I can't help it.
Won't you please let me - let me lend you enough money to keep
you going, till you get a good job? Please do! Of course,
you can pay me, as soon as - "

"'I have not found such faith, - no, not in Israel!'" quoted
Brice, a new note in his voice which somehow stirred the
embarrassed girl's heart. "You have only my bare word that
I'm not a panhandler or a crook. And yet you believe in me
enough to - "

"You will let me?" she urged, eagerly. "Say you will! Say
it."

"I'll make cleaner use of your faith," he returned, "by asking
you to say a good word for me to your brother, if ever I come
back here looking for a job. No, no!" he broke off, fiercely,
before she could answer. "I don't mean that. You must do
nothing of the kind. Forget I asked it."

With which amazing outburst, he turned on his heel, ran across
the lawn, leaped the low privet hedge which divided it from
the coral road, and made off at a swinging pace in the
direction of Coconut Grove and Miami.

"What a fool - and what a cur - a man can make of himself," he
muttered disgustedly as he strode along, without daring to
look back at the wondering little white-clad figure, watching
him out of sight around the bend, "when he gets to talking
with a woman - a woman with - with eyes like hers! They - why,
they make me feel as if I was in church! What sort of
bungling novice am I, anyhow, for work like this?"

With a grunt of self-contempt, he drove his hands deep into
the pockets of his shabby trousers and quickened his pace.
His fingers closed mechanically around a roll of bills, of
very respectable size, in the depths of his right-hand pocket.
The gesture caused a litter of small change to give forth a
muffled jingle. A sense of shame crept over the man, at the
contact.

"She wanted to lend me money!" he muttered, half-aloud.
"Money! Not give it to me, as a beggar, but to lend it to
me.... Her nose has the funniest little tilt to it! And she
can't be an inch over five feet tall! ... I'm a wall-eyed
idiot!"

He stood aside to let two cars pass him, one going in either
direction. The lamps of the car from the west, traveling
east, showed him for a moment the occupant of the car that was
moving westward. The brief ray shone upon a pair of shoulders
as wide as a steam radiator. They were clad in loose-fitting
white silk. Above them a thick golden beard caught the ray of
shifting light. Then, both cars had passed on, and Brice was
resuming his trudge.

"Milo Standish!" he mused, looking back at the car as it
vanished in a cloudlet of white coral-dust. "Milo Standish!
... As big as two elephants .... 'The bigger they are, the
harder they fall.'"

The road curved, from the Standish estate, in almost a "C"
formation, before straightening out, a mile to the north, into
the main highway. Gavin Brice had just reached the end of the
"C" when there was a scurrying sound behind him, in a
grapefruit grove to his right. Something light and agile
scrambled over the low coral-block wall, and flung itself
rapturously on him.

It was Bobby Burns.

The collie had suffered himself to be led indoors by the girl
whom he had never seen until that morning, and for whom, thus
far, he had formed no affection. But his wistful, deepset
dark eyes had followed Gavin Brice's receding form. He could
not believe this dear new friend meant to desert him. As
Brice did not stop, nor even look back, the collie waxed
doubtful. And he tugged to be free. Claire spoke gently to
him, a slight quiver in her own voice, her dark eyes, like
his, fixed upon the dwindling dark speck on the dusky white
road.

"No, Bobby!" she said, under her breath, as she petted the
restless head. "He won't come back. Let's forget all about
it. We both behaved foolishly, you and I, Bobby. And
he - well, let's just call him eccentric, and not think about
him any more."

She drew the reluctant collie into the house, and closed the
door. But, a few minutes later, when her back chanced to be
turned, and when a maid came into the room leaving the door
ajar, Bobby slipped out.

In another five seconds he was in the road, casting about for
Brice's trail. Finding it, he set off, at a hard gallop,
nostrils close to the ground. Having once been hit and
bruised, in puppyhood, by a motor car, the dog had a wholesome
respect for such rapid and ill-smelling vehicles. Thus, as he
saw the lights and heard the engine-purr of one of them,
coming toward him, down the road, he dodged back into the
wayside hedge until it passed. Which is the reason Milo
Standish failed to see the dog he had been hunting for.

A little later, Brice's scent became so distinct that the
collie could abandon his nose-to-the-ground tactics and strike
across country, by dead-reckoning, guided not only by his nose
but by the sound of Gavin's steps. Then, in an access of
delight, he burst upon the plodding man.

"Why, Bobby!" exclaimed Brice, touched by the dog's rapture in
having found him again. "Why, Bobby Burns! What on earth
made you follow me? Don't you know I'm not your master?
Don't you, Bobby?"

He was petting the frisking collie as he talked. But now he
faced about.

"I've got to take you back to her, old man!" he informed the
highly interested dog. "You belong to her. And she'll worry
about you. I'll just take you into the dooryard or to the
front lawn or whatever it is, and tie you there, so some one
will find you. I don't want to get my plans all messed up by
another talk with her, to-night. It's a mean trick to play on
you, after you've taken all the trouble to follow me. But
you're hers. After this rotten business is all over, maybe
I'll try to buy you. It's worth ninety per cent of your value
to have had you pick me out for your master. Any man with
cash enough can be a dog's owner, Bobby. But all the cash in
the world won't make him the dog's master without the dog's
own consent. Ever stop to think of that, Bobby?"

As he talked, half incoherently, to the delighted collie,
Gavin was retracing his way over the mile or so he had just
traversed. He grudged the extra steps. For the day had been
long and full of exercise. And he was more than comfortably
tired. But he kept on, wondering vexedly at the little throb
of eagerness in his heart as Claire Standish's home at last
bulked dimly into view around the last curve of the byroad.

Bobby Burns trotted happily beside him, reveling in the man's
occasional rambling words, as is the flattering way collies
have when they are talked to, familiarly, by the human they
love. And so the two neared the house, their padding
footsteps noiseless in the soft white dust of the road.

There were lights in several windows. One strong ray was cast
full across the side lawn, penetrating almost as far as the
beginning of the forest at the rear. Toward this vivid beam,
Gavin bent his steps, fumbling in his pocket as he went, for
something with which to tie Bobby to the nearest tree.

As he moved forward and left the road for the closecropped
grass of the lawn, he saw a dim white shadow advancing
obliquely in his direction. And, for an instant, his
heartbeats quickened, ever so slightly. Then, he was
disgusted with his own fatuousness. For the white form was
double the size of Claire Standish. And he knew this was her
brother, crossing from the garage to a door of the house.

The big man swung along with the easy gait of perfect physical
strength. And as the window, whence flowed the light-ray, was
alongside the door he intended to enter, his journey toward
the house lay in the direct path of the ray.

Brice, in the darkness, just inside the gateway, stood
moveless and waited for him to traverse the hundred feet or so
that remained between him and the veranda. The collie
fidgeted, at sight of the man in white, and began to growl,
inquiringly, far down in his throat.

Gavin patted Bobby Burns reassuringly on the head, to quiet
him. He was of no mind to introduce himself at the Standish
home, a second time, as the returner of a runaway dog.
Wherefore, he sought to remain unseen, and to wait with what
patience he could until the householder should have gone
indoors.

Apparently, on reaching home, Standish had driven the car to
the garage and had pottered around there for some minutes
before starting for the house. He was carrying something
loosely in one hand, and he did not seem in any hurry.

"My friend," said Gavin, soundlessly, "if a girl like Claire
Standish was waiting for me, beyond, that shaft of light, I'd
make the trip in something better than no time at all. But
then - she's not my sister, thank the good Lord!"

He grinned at his own silly thoughts concerning the girl he
had talked to for so brief a time. Yet he found himself
looking at her elder brother with a certain reluctant
friendliness, on her account.

Suddenly, the grin was wiped from his face, and he was tense
from head to foot.

Standish, on his way homeward, was strolling past a clump of
dwarf shrubbery. And, idly watching him, Gavin could have
sworn that one end of the shrubbery moved.

Then, he was no longer in doubt. The bit of darkness detached
itself from the rest of the shrubbery, as Milo lounged past,
and it sprang, catlike, at the unsuspecting man's back.

Into the path of light it leaped. In the same atom of time,
Gavin Brice shouted aloud in sharp warning, and dashed forward,
the collie at his side.

But he was fifty feet away. And his shout served only to make
Standish halt, staring about him.

It was then that the creature from the shrubbery made his
spring. He struck venomously at Standish, from behind. And
Gavin could see, in the striking hand, a glitter of steel.

Standish - warned perhaps by sound, perhaps by instinct - wheeled
half-way around. Thus the knifeblow missed its mark between
his shoulder-blades. Not the blade, but the fist which
gripped it, smote full on Standish's shoulder. The deflected
point merely shore the white coat from neck to waist.

There was no scope to strike again. And the assailant
contented himself with passing his free arm garrotingly around
Standish's neck, from behind, and leaping upward, bringing his
knees into the small of the victim's back.

Here evidently was no amateur slayer. For, even as the
knife-thrust missed its mark, he had resorted to the second
ruse, and before Standish could turn around far enough to
avert it.

Down went the big man, under the strangle-hold and knee-purchase.
With a crash that knocked the breath out of him and dazed him, he
landed on his back, his head smiting the sward with a resounding
thwack.

His adversary, once more, wasted not a jot of time. As
Standish struck ground, the man was upon him, knife again
aloft, poised above the helpless Milo's throat.

And it was then that Gavin Brice's flying feet brought him to
the scene.

As he ran he had heard a door open. And he knew his warning
shout had reached the ears of some one in the house, - perhaps
of Claire. But he had no time nor thought for anything, just
then, except the stark need of reaching Milo Standish before
the knife could strike.

He launched himself, after the fashion of a football tackle,
straight for the descending arm. And, for a few seconds all
three men rolled and wallowed and fought in a jumble of flying
arms and legs and heads.

Brice had been lucky enough or dextrous enough to catch the
knife-wielder's wrist and to wrench it far to one side, as it
whizzed downward. With his other hand he had groped for the
slayer's throat.

Then, he found himself attacked with a maniac fury by the man
whose murderous purpose he had thwarted. Still gripping the
knife-wrist, he was sore put to it to fend off an avalanche of
blows from the other arm and of kicks from both of the
assailant's deftly plied feet.

Nor was his task made the easier by the fact that Milo
Standish had recovered from the momentary daze, and was
slugging impartially at both the men who rolled and tossed on
top of him.

This, for a short but excessively busy space of moments.
Then, wriggling free of Milo's impeding and struggling bulk,
Brice gained the throat-hold he sought. Still holding to the
ground the wrist of the knifehand, he dug his supple fingers
deep into the man's throat, disregarding such blows and kicks
as he could not ward off.

There was science in his ferocious onslaught. And his skilled
fingers had found the windpipe and the carotid artery as well.
With such force as Brice was able to exert, the other's breath
was shut off, while he was all but paralyzed by the digging
pressure into his carotid.

Such a grip is well understood by Japanese athletes, though
its possibilities and method are unknown to the average
Occidental. Rightly applied, it is irresistible. Carried to
its conclusion, it spells sudden and agonizing death to its
victim.

And Gavin Brice was carrying it to the conclusion, with all
the sinew and science of his trained arms.

The knifer's strength was gorilla-like. But that strength, at
every second, was rendered more and more futile. The man must
have realized it. For, all at once, he ceased his battery of
kicks and blows, and struggled frantically to tear free.

Each plunging motion merely intensified the pain and power of
the relentless throat-grip that pinioned him. And, strangling
and panic-struck, he became wilder in his fruitless efforts to
wrench loose. Then, deprived of breath and with his
nerve-centers shaken, he lost the power to strive.

It was the time for which Gavin had waited. With perfect
ease, now, he twisted the knife from the failing grasp, and,
with his left hand, he reinforced the throat-grip of his
right. As he did so, he got his legs under him and arose,
dragging upward with him the all but senseless body of his
garroted foe.

It had been a pretty bit of work, from the start, and one upon
which his monkey-faced Japanese jui-jutsu
instructor would have lavished a grunt of approval.

He had conquered an armed and muscular enemy by his knowledge
of anatomy and by applying the simple grip he had learned.
And now, the heaving half-dead murderer was at his mercy.

Gavin swung the feebly twitching body out, more fully into the
streak of light from the house, noting, subconsciously that
the light ray was twice as broad as before, by reason of the
door's standing open.

But, before he could concentrate his gaze on the man he held,
he saw several million other things. And all the several
million were multi-hued stars and bursting bombs.

The entire universe seemed to have exploded and to have chosen
the inside of his brain as the site for such annoying
pyrotechnics. Dully he was aware that his hands were
loosening their death-grip and that his arms were falling to
his sides. Also, that his knees had turned to hot tallow and
were crumbling, under him.

None of these amazing phenomena struck him as at all
interesting. Indeed, nothing struck him as worth noting. Not
even the display of myriad shooting stars. It all seemed
quite natural, and it all lasted for the merest breath of
time.

Through the universe of varicolored lights and explosions, he
was aware of a woman's cry. And, somehow, this pierced the
mist of his senses, and found its way to his heart. But only
for an instant.

Then, instead of tumbling to earth, he felt himself sinking
down, uncountable miles, through a cool darkness. The dark
was comforting, after all that bothersome display of lights.

And, while he was still falling, he drifted into a dead sleep.




CHAPTER III

THE MOCKING BIRD


After centuries of unconsciousness, Gavin Brice began to
return, bit by bit, to his senses.

The first thing he knew was that the myriad shooting stars in
his head had changed somehow into a myriad shooting pains. He
was in torment. And he was deathly sick.

His trained brain forced itself to a semblance of sanity, and
he found himself piecing together vaguely the things that had
happened to him. He could remember seeing Milo Standish
strolling toward the veranda in the shaft of light from the
window, then the black figure which detached itself from the
shrubbery and sprang on the unheeding man, and his own attempt
to turn aside the arm that wielded the knife.

But everything else was a blank.

Meanwhile, the countless shooting pains were merging into one
intolerable ache. Brice had no desire to stir or even to open
his eyes. The very thought of motion was abhorrent. The mere
effort at thinking was painful. So he lay still.

Presently, he was aware of something that touched his head.
And he wondered why the touch did not add to his hurt, but was
soothing. Even a finger's weight might have been expected to
jar his battered skull.

But there was no jar to this touch. Rather was it cooling and
of infinite comfort. And now he realized that it had been


1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

Online LibraryAlbert Payson TerhuneBlack Caesar's Clan : a Florida Mystery Story → online text (page 3 of 15)