Albert Payson Terhune.

Black Caesar's Clan : a Florida Mystery Story online

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continuing for some time.

Again he roused his rebellious brain to action, and knew at
last what the soothing touch must be. Some one was bathing
his forehead with cool water. Some one with a lightly
magnetic touch. Some one whose fingers held healing in their
soft tips.

And, just above him, he could hear quick, light breathing,
breathing that was almost a sob. His unseen nurse was taking
her job not only seriously but compassionately. That was
evident. It did not jibe with Gavin's slight experience with
trained nurses. Wherefore, it puzzled him.

But, perplexity seemed to hurt his brain as much as did the
effort to piece together the shattered fragments of memory.
So he forbore to follow that train of thought. And, again, he
strove to banish mentality and to sink back into the merciful
senselessness from which youth and an iron-and-whalebone
constitution were fighting to rouse him.

But, do what he would to prevent it, consciousness was
creeping more and more in upon him. For, now, he could not
only follow the motions of the wondrously gentle hand on his
forehead, but he could tell that his head was not on the
ground. Instead, it was resting on something warm, and it
was elevated some inches above the grass. He recalled a
war-chromo of a wounded soldier whose head rested on the knee
of a Red Cross nurse, - a nurse who sat on the furrowed earth
of a five-color battlefield, where all real life army
regulations forbade her to set foot.

Was he that soldier? Was he still in the hell of the Flanders
trenches? He had thought the war was over, and that he was
back in America, - in America and on his way South on some odd
and perilous business whose nature he could not now recall.

Another few seconds of mental wandering, and he was himself
again, his mind functioning more and more clearly. With
returning strength of brain came curiosity. Where was he?
How did he chance to be lying here, his head in some sobbing
woman's lap? It didn't make sense!

With instinctive caution, he parted his eyelids, ever so
slightly, and sought to peer upward through his thick lashes.
The effort was painful, but less so than he had feared.
Already, through natural buoyancy or else by reason of the
unseen nurse's ministrations, the throbbing ache was becoming
almost bearable.

At first, his dazed eyes could make out nothing. Then he
could see, through his lashes, the velvety dark blue of the
night sky and the big white Southern stars shining through a
soft cloud. Inconsequentially, his vagrant mind recalled
that, below Miami, the Southern Cross is smudgily visible on
the horizon, somewhere around two in the morning. And he
wondered if he could descry it, if that luminous cloud were
not in the way.

Then, he knew it was not a cloud which shimmered between his
eyes and the stars. It was a woman's filmy hair.

And the woman was bending down above him, as he lay with his
head on her knee. She was bending down, sobbing softly to
herself, and bathing his aching head with water from a bowl at
her side.

He was minded to rouse himself and speak, or at least to get a
less elusive look at her shadowed face, when running footsteps
sounded from somewhere. And again by instinct, Brice shut his
eyes and lay moveless.

The footsteps were coming nearer. They were springy and
rhythmic, the footsteps of a powerful man.

Then came a panting voice out of the darkness

"Oh, there you are!" it exclaimed. "He got away. Got away,
clean. I reached the head of the path, not ten feet behind
him. But, in there, it's so black I couldn't see anything
ahead of me. And I had no light, worse luck! So he - "

A deep-throated growl interrupted him, - a growl so fierce and
menacing that Gavin once more halfparted his eyes, in sudden
curiosity.

From beside his feet, Bobby Burns was rising. The collie had
crouched there, evidently, with some idea of guarding Brice
from further harm. He did not seem to have resented the
woman's ministrations. But he was of no mind to let this man
come any closer to his stricken idol.

Brice was sore tempted to reach out his hand and give the
collie a reassuring pat and to thank him for the loyal guard
he had been keeping. Now, through the mists of memory, he
recalled snarls and the bruising contact of a furry body,
during the battle he so, dimly remembered, and that once his
foe had cried, out, as though at the impact of rending teeth.

Yes, Bobby Burns, presumably, had learned a lesson since his
interested but impersonal surveillance of Gavin's bout with
the beach comber, earlier in the afternoon. He had begun to
learn that when grown men come to a clinch, it is not mere
play.

And Brice wanted to praise the gallant young dog for coming
to his help. But, as before, instinct and professional
experience bade him continue to "play dead."

"What's that?" he heard the man demand, in surprise, as Bobby
snarled again and stood threateningly between him and the
prostrate Brice.

The woman answered. And at the first sound of her voice, full
memory rushed back on Gavin in a flood. He knew where he was,
and who was holding, his head on her knee. The knowledge
thrilled him, unaccountably. With mighty effort he held to
his, pose of inert senselessness.

"That's Bobby Burns," he heard Claire saying in reply to her
brother's first question. "He's guarding Mr. Brice. When I
ran out here with the water and the cloths, I found him
standing above him. But - oh, Milo - "

"Brice?" snapped Milo Standish, glowering on the fallen man
his sister was brooding over. "Brice? Who's Brice? D'you
mean that chap? Lucky I got him, even if the other one did
give me the slip! Let me take a look at him. If I hadn't
happened to be bringing the monkey-wrench from the garage to
fix that shelf-bolt in the study, I'd never have been able to
get even one of them. I yanked free of them, while they were
trying to down me, and I let this one have it with the wrench.
Before I could land on the other - "

"Milo!" she broke in, after several vain attempts to still his
vainglorious recital. "Milo! You've injured - maybe you've
killed - the man who saved you from being stabbed to death!
Yet you - "

"What are you talking about?" he demanded, bewildered. "These
two men set on me in the dark, as I was coming from - "

"This man, here - Mr. Brice - " she flamed, "has saved you from
being killed. Oh, go and telephone for a doctor! Quickly!
And send one of the maids out here with my smelling salts.
He - "

"Thanks!" returned her brother, making no move to obey. "But
when I phone, it'll be to the police. Not to a doctor. I
don't know what notion you may have gotten of this fracas.
But - "

"Oh, we're wasting such precious time!" she cried. "Listen!
I heard a shout. I was on my way to the veranda to see what
was detaining you. For I had heard your car come in, quite a
while before that. I opened the door. And I was just in time
to see some man spring on you, with a knife in his hand. Then
Mr. Brice came running from the gateway, just as the man threw
you down and lifted his knife to stab you. Mr. Brice dragged
him away from you and throttled him, and knocked the knife out
of his hand. I could see it ever so plainly. For it was all
in that big patch of light. Just like a scene on a stage.
Then, Mr. Brice got to his feet, and swung the man to one
side, by the throat. And as he did, you jumped up, too, and
hit him on the head with that miserable wrench. As he fell, I
could see the other man stagger off toward the path. He was
so weak, at first, he could hardly move. I cried out to you,
but you were so busy glaring down at the man who had saved
your life that you didn't think to start after the other one
till he had gotten strength enough to escape from you. Then I
went for water to - "

"Good Lord!" groaned Standish, agape. "You're - you're
sure - dead sure you're right?"

"Sure?" she echoed, indignantly. "Of course I'm sure. I - "

"Hold that measly dog's collar," he broke in. "So! I don't
care to be bitten. I've had my share of knockabout stuff, for
one day."

Stooping, he picked up Brice as easily as though Gavin had
been a baby, and with rough tenderness carried him toward the
house.

"There are a lot of things, about all this, that I don't
understand," he continued, irritably, as Claire and the still
growling but tight-held Bobby followed him to the veranda.
"For instance, how that dog happens to be here and trying to
protect a total stranger. For, Bobby only got to Miami, from
New Jersey, by this morning's train. He can't possibly know
this man. That's one thing. Another is, how this - Brice, did
you say his name is? - happened to be Johnny-on-the-spot when
the other chap tried to knife me. And how you happen to know
him by name. He's dressed more like a day-laborer than like
any one you'd be likely to meet .... But all that can wait.
The thing now is to find how badly he's hurt."

They had reached the veranda, and Standish carried his burden
through an open doorway, which was blocked by a knot of
excitedly inquisitive servants. A sharp word from Standish
sent them whisperingly back to the kitchen regions. Milo laid
Brice down on a wicker couch in the broad, flagged hallway,
and ran his fingers over the bruised head.

Gavin could hear Claire, in a nearby room, telephoning.

"Hold on, there!" called Standish, as his sister gave the
operator a number. "Wait! As well as I can tell, at a
glance, there doesn't seem to be any fracture. He's just
knocked out. That's all. A mild concussion of the brain, I
should think. Don't call a doctor, unless it turns out to be
more serious. It's bad enough for the servants to be all
stirred up like this, and to blab - as they're certain to - without
letting a doctor in on it, too. The less talk we cause, the
better."

Reluctantly, Claire came away from the telephone and
approached the couch.

"You're sure?" she asked, in doubt.

"I've had some experience with this sort of thing, on the
other side," he answered. "The man will come to himself in
another few minutes. I've loosened his collar and belt and
shoelaces. He - "

"Have you any idea who could have tried to kill you?" she
asked, shuddering.

"Yes!" he made sullen answer. "And so have you. Let it go at
that."

"You - you think it was one of - ?"

"Hush!" he ordered, uneasily. "This fellow may not be quite
as unconscious as he looks. Sometimes, people get their
hearing back, before they open their eyes. Come into the
library, a minute. I want to speak to you. Oh, don't look
like that, about leaving him alone! He'll be all right, I
tell you! His pulse is coming back, strong. Come in here."

He laid one big arm on her slight shoulder and led her,
half-forcibly, into the adjoining room. Thence, Gavin could
hear the rumble of his deep voice. But he could catch no word
the man said, though once he heard Claire speak in vehement
excitement, and could hear Milo's harsh interruption and his
command that she lower her voice.


Presently, the two came back into the hall. As Standish
neared the couch, Gavin Brice opened his eyes, with
considerable effort, and blinked dazedly up at the gigantic
figure in the torn and muddy white silk suit.

Then Brice's blinking gaze drifted to Claire, as she stood,
pale and big-eyed, above him. He essayed a feeble smile of
recognition, and let his glance wander in well-acted amazement
about the high-veiled hallway.

"Feeling better?" queried Milo. "Here, drink this."

Gavin essayed to speak. His pose was not wholly assumed. For
his head still swam and was intolerably painful.

He sipped at the brandy which Standish held to his sagging
lips. And, glancing toward Claire, he smiled, a somewhat
wavery and wan smile.

"Don't try to say anything!" she begged. "Wait till you are
feeling better."

"I'm I'm all right," he assured her, albeit rather shakily,
his voice seeming to come from a distance. "I got a rap over
the head. And it put me out, for a while. But - I'm
collecting the pieces. I'll be as good as - as new, in a few
minutes."

The fragments of dialogue between brother and sister had
supplemented his returning memory. Mentally, he was himself
again, keen, secretive, alert, every bit of him warily on
guard. But he cursed the fact that Standish had drawn Claire
into the library, out of earshot, when he spoke of the man who
had attacked him.

Then, with a queer revulsion of feeling, he cursed himself for
an eavesdropper, and was ashamed of having listened at all.
For the first time, he began to hate the errand that had
brought him to Florida.

Bobby Burns caused a mild diversion, as Brice's voice trailed
away. At Gavin's first word, the collie sprang from his
self-appointed guard-post at the foot of the couch, and came
dancing up to the convalescent man, thrusting his cold nose
rapturously against Brice's face, trying to lick his cheek,
whimpering in joy at his idol's recovery.

With much effort Gavin managed to stroke the wrigglingly
active head, and to say a reassuring word to his worshiper.
Then, glancing again at Claire, he explained:

"I'd done about a mile toward Miami when he overtook me.
There was no use in trying to send him home. So I brought
him. Just as we got to the gate, here - "

"I know," intervened Claire, eager to spare him the effort of
speech. "I saw. It was splendid of you, Mr. Brice! My
brother and I are in your debt for more than we can ever hope
to pay."

"Nonsense!" he protested. "I made a botch of the whole thing.
I ought - "

"No," denied Milo. "It was I who made a botch of it. I owe
you not only my life but an apology. It was my blow, not the
other man's, that knocked you out. I misunderstood, and - "

"That's all right!" declared Gavin. "In the dim light it's a
miracle we didn't all of us slug the wrong men. I - "

He stopped. Claire had been working over something on a table
behind him. Now she came forward with a cold compress for his
abraded scalp. Skillfully, she applied it, her dainty fingers
wondrously deft.

"Red Cross?" asked Brice, as she worked.

"Just a six-month nursing course, during the war," she said,
modestly, adding: "I didn't get across."

"I'm sorry," said Gavin. "I mean, for the poor chaps who
might have profited by such clever bandaging .... Yes, that's
a very dull and heavy compliment. I know it. But - there's a
lot of gratitude behind it. You've made this throbbing old
head of mine feel ever so much better, Miss Standish."

Milo was looking bewilderedly from one to the other, as if
trying to understand how this ill-clad man chanced to be on
such terms of acquaintanceship with his fastidious little
sister. Claire read his look of inquiry, and said:

"Mr. Brice found Bobby Burns, this afternoon, and brought him
home to me. It was nice of him, wasn't it? For it took him
ever so far out of his way."

Gavin noted that she made no mention of his having come to the
Standish home by way of the hidden path. It seemed to him
that she gave him a glance of covert appeal, as though
beseeching him not to mention it. He nodded, ever so
slightly, and took up the narrative, as she paused for words.

"I saw Miss Standish and yourself, at Miami, this morning,"
said he, "and the collie, here, on the back seat of your car.
Then, this afternoon, as I was walking out in this direction,
I saw the dog again. I recognized him, and I guessed he had
strayed. So he and I made friends. And as we were strolling
along together, we met Miss Standish. At least, I met her.
Bobby met a prematurely gray Persian cat, with the dreamy
Bagdad name of 'Simon Cameron.' By the time the dog and cat
could be sorted out from each other - "

"Oh, I see!" laughed Milo. "And I don't envy you the job of
sorting them. It was mighty kind of you to - "

He broke off and added, with a tinge of anxiety:

"You say you happened to be walking near here. Are you a
neighbor of ours?"

"Not yet," answered Gavin, with almost exaggerated simplicity.
"But I was hoping to be. You see I was out looking for a job
in this neighborhood."

"A job?" repeated Milo, then, suspiciously: "Why in this
neighborhood, rather than any other? You say you were at
Miami - "

"Because this chanced to be the neighborhood I was wandering
in," replied Gavin. "As I explained to Miss Standish, I'd
rather do some kind of outdoor work. Preferably farm work.
That's why I left Miami. There seemed to be lots of farms and
groves, hereabouts."

"Yet you were on your way back toward Miami, when Bobby
overtook you? Rather a long walk, for - "

"A long walk," gravely agreed Brice. "But safer sleeping
quarters when one gets there. Up North, one can take a
chance, and sleep in the open, almost anywhere except on a
yellow-jacket's nest. Down here, I've heard, rattlesnakes are
apt to stray in upon one's slumbers. Out in the country, at
least. There aren't any rattlesnakes in the Royal Palm's
gardens. Besides, there's music, and there's the fragrance of
night jasmine. Altogether, it's worth the difference of ten
or twelve miles of tramping."

"You're staying at the Royal Palm, then?"

"Near it," corrected Brice. "To be exact, in the darkest
corner of its big gardens. The turf is soft and springy. The
solitude is perfect, too - unless some nightwatchman gets too
vigilant."

He spoke lightly, even airily, through his pain and weakness.
But, as before, his every faculty was on guard. A born and
trained expert in reading human nature, he felt this giant
somehow suspected him and was trying to trap him in an
inaccuracy. Wherefore, he fenced, verbally, calmly confident
he could outpoint his clumsier antagonist.

"You don't look like the kind of man who need sleep out of
doors," replied Standish, speaking slowly, as one who chooses
his every word with care, and with his cold blue eyes
unobtrusively scanning Gavin's battered face. "That's the
bedroom for bums. You aren't a bum. Even if your manner, and
the way you fought out yonder, didn't prove that. A bum
doesn't walk all this way and back, on a hot day, unless for a
handout. And you - "

"But a handout is just what I asked for," Gavin caught him up.
"When I brought Bobby Burns back I traded on the trifling
little service by asking Miss Standish if I could get a job
here. It was impertinent of me, I know. And I was sorry as
soon as I'd done it. But she told me, in effect, that you
were 'firing, not hiring.' So I - "

"Why did you want a job with me?" insisted Standish. "Rather
than with any of a dozen farmers or country house people along
here?"

And, this time, any fool could have read the stark suspicion
in his tone and in the hard blue eyes.

"For several reasons," said Brice, coolly. "In the
first place, I had brought home your dog. In the second, I
had taken a fancy to him, as he had to me, and it would be
pleasant working at a place where I could be with such a chum.
In the third place, Miss Standish was kind enough to say
pretty much the same things about me that you've just said.
She knew I wasn't a tramp, who might be expected to decamp
with the lawn-mower or the spoons. Another landowner might
not have been so complimentary, when I applied for work and
had no references. In the fourth, you seem to have a larger
and more pretentious place here than most of your near
neighbors. I - I can't think of any better reasons, just now."

"H'm!" mused Standish, frowning down on the recumbent man, and
then looking across in perplexity at Claire.

What he read in the girl's eyes seemed to shame him, just a
little. For, as he turned back to Gavin, there was an
apologetic aspect on his bearded face. Brice decided to force
the playing. Before his host could speak or Claire could
interfere, he rose to a sitting position, with some effort and
more pain, and, clutching the head of the couch, lurched to
his feet.

"No, no!" called Claire, running forward to support him as he
swayed a bit. "Don't try to stand! Lie down again! You're
as white as a ghost."

But Gavin drew courteously away from her supporting arm and
faced Milo.

"I can only thank you," said he, "for patching me up so well.
I'm a lot better, now. And I've a long way to go. So, I'll
be starting. Thanks, again, both of you. I'm sorry to have
put you to so much bother." He reeled, cleverly, caught at
the couch-head again, and took an uncertain step toward the
door. But now, not only Claire but her brother barred his
way.

"Don't be an idiot!" stormed Milo. "Why, man, you couldn't
walk a hundred yards, with that groggy head on your shoulders!
You're all beaten up. You'll be lucky if you're on your feet
in another three days. What sort of cur do you think I am, to
let you go like this, after all you've done for me, to-night?
You'll stay with us till to-morrow, anyhow. And then, if you
still insist on going back to Miami, I'll take you there in
the car. But you're not going a step from here, to-night.
I - "

Gavin strove to mutter a word of disclaimer, to take another
wavering stride toward the front door. But his knees gave
away under him. He swayed forward, and must have fallen, had
not Milo Standish caught him.

"Here," Milo bade his sister, as he laid the limp body back on
the couch. "Go and tell the maids to get the gray room ready
as quickly as possible. I'll carry him up there. It was
rotten of me to go on catechizing him, like that, and letting
him see he was unwelcome. But for him, I'd be - "

"Yes," answered Claire, over her shoulder, as she hurried on
her errand. "It was 'rotten.' And more than that. I kept
trying to signal you to stop. You'll you'll give him work,
here, won't you, please?"

"We'll talk about that, afterward," he said, ungraciously. "I
suppose it's the only thing a white man can do, after the chap
risked his life for me, to-night. But I'd rather give him ten
times his wages - money to get out and keep out."

"Thanks, neighbor!" said Brice, to himself, from the depths of
his stage-faint. "I've no doubt you would. But the cards are
running the other way."

Again, his eyes apparently shut, he watched through slitted
lids the progress of Claire, as she passed out of the hall,
toward the kitchen quarters. She was leading the reluctant
Bobby Burns away, by the collar. Standish was just behind
her, and had his back turned to Gavin. But he glanced at him,
suddenly, over his shoulder, and then strode swiftly forward
to close the door which Claire had left open behind her on her
way to the kitchen wing of the house.

Something in the big man's action aroused in Brice the mystic
sixth sense he had been at much pains to develop, - a sense
which often enabled him to guess instinctively at an opponent's
next probable move. As Milo took his first step toward the open
door, Brice went into action.

Both hands slipped into his pockets, and out again. As he
withdrew them, one hand held his battered but patently solid
gold watch. The other gripped his roll of bills and as much
of his small change as he had been able to scoop up in one
rapid grab.

On the stand at the head of the couch reposed a fat tobacco
jar and pipes. The jar was more than half full. Into it,
Gavin Brice dumped his valuables, and with a clawing motion,
scraped a handful of loose tobacco over them. Then he
returned to his former inertly supine posture.

The whole maneuver had not occupied three seconds. And, by
the time Standish had the door closed and had started back
toward the couch, the watch and money were safe-hidden. At
that, there had been little enough time to spare. It had been
a matter of touch-and-go. Nothing but the odd look he had
read in Milo's face as Standish had glanced at him over his
shoulder, would have led Brice to take such a chance. But,
all at once, it had seemed a matter of stark necessity.

The narrow escape from detection set his strained nerves to
twitching. He muttered to himself:

"Come along then, you man-mountain! You wanted to get your
sister out of the way, so you could go through my clothes and
see if I was lying about being flat broke and if I had any
incriminating papers on me. Come along, and search! If I
hadn't brains enough to fool a chucklehead, like you, I'd go
out of the business and take in back-stairs to clean!"

Milo was approaching the couch, moving with a stealthy
lightness, unusual in so large a man. Leaning over the
supposedly unconscious Gavin, he ran his fingers deftly
through Brice's several pockets. In only two was he lucky to


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Online LibraryAlbert Payson TerhuneBlack Caesar's Clan : a Florida Mystery Story → online text (page 4 of 15)