Albert Payson Terhune.

Black Caesar's Clan : a Florida Mystery Story online

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find anything.

From a trousers pocket he exhumed seventy-eight cents. From
the inner pocket of the coat he extracted a card, postmarked
"New York City," and addressed to "Gavin Brice, General
Delivery, Miami, Florida." The postcard was inscribed, in a
scrawling hand:

"Good time and good luck and good health to you, from us all.
Jack O'G."

Gavin knew well the contents of the card, having written it
and mailed it to himself on the eve of his departure from the
North. It was as mild and noncommittal a form of
identification as he could well have chosen.

Standish read the banal message on the soiled card, then
restored cash and postal to their respective pockets. After
which he stood frowning down in puzzled conjecture on the
moveless Gavin.

"Well, old chap!" soliloquized Brice. "If that evidence
doesn't back up all I said about myself, nothing will. But,
for the Lord's sake, don't help yourself to a pipeful of
tobacco, till I have time to plant the loot deeper in the
jar!"

He heard the light footfalls of women, upstairs, where Claire,
in person, seemed to be superintending the arrangement of his
room. At the sound, a twinge of compunction swept Brice.
But, at memory of her brother's stealthy ransacking of an
unconscious guest's clothes, the feeling passed, leaving only
a warm battlethrill.

Drowsily, he opened his eyes, and stared with blank wonder up
at Milo. Then, shamefacedly, he mumbled:

"I - I hope I wasn't baby enough to - to keel over, Mr.
Standish?"

"That's all right," answered Milo. "It was my fault. I was a
boor. And, very rightly, you decided you didn't care to stay
any longer under my roof. But your strength wasn't up to your
spirit. So you fainted. I want to apologize for speaking as
I did. I'm mighty grateful to you, for your service to me,
this evening. And my sister and I want you to stay on here,
for the present. When you're feeling more like yourself,
we'll have a chat about that job. I think we can fix it, all
right. Nothing big, of course. Nothing really worth your
while. But it may serve as a stopgap, till you get a chance
to look around you."

"If nothing better turns up," suggested Brice, with a weak
effort at lightness, "you might hire me as a bodyguard."

"As a - a what?" snapped Milo, in sharp suspicion, the
geniality wiped from face and voice with ludicrous suddenness.
"A - ?"

"As a bodyguard," repeated Gavin, not seeming to note the
change in his host. "If you're in the habit of being set
upon, often, as you were, this evening you'll be better off
with a good husky chap to act as-"

"Oh, that?" scoffed Milo, in ponderous contempt. "That was
just some panhandler, who thought he might knock me over, from
behind, and get my watch and wallet. The same thing isn't
likely to happen again in a century. Florida is the most
law-abiding State in the Union. And Dade County is perhaps
the most law-abiding part of Florida. One would need a
bodyguard in New York City, more than here. There have been a
lot of holdups there."

Gavin did not reply. His silence seemed to annoy Milo who
burst forth again, this time with a tinge of open amusement in
his contempt:

"Besides - even if there were assassins lurking behind every
bunch of palmetto scrub, in the county - do you honestly think
a man of your size could do very much toward protecting me?
I'm not bragging. But I'm counted one of the strongest men
in - "

"To-night," said Brice, drily, "I managed to be of some slight
use. Pardon my mentioning it. If I hadn't been there, you'd
be carrying eight inches of cold steel, between your shoulders.
And - pardon me, again - if you'd had the sense to stay out of
the squabble a second or so longer, the man who tackled you
would be either in jail or in the morgue, by this time. I'm
not oversized. But neither is a stick of dynamite. An
automatic pistol isn't anywhere as big as an old-fashioned
blunderbuss. But it can outshoot and outkill the blunderbuss,
with very little bother. Think it over. And, while you're
thinking, stop to think, also, that a 'panhandler' doesn't do
his work with a knife. He doesn't try to stab a man to death,
for the sake of the few dollars the victim may happen to have
in his pockets. That sort of thing calls for pluck and iron
nerves and physical strength. If a panhandler had those, he
wouldn't be a panhandler. Any more than that chap, to-night,
was a panhandler. My idea of acting as a bodyguard for you
isn't bad. Think it over. You seem to need one."

"Why do you say that?" demanded Milo, in one of his recurrent
flashes of suspicion.

"Because," said Gavin, "we're living in the twentieth century
and in real life, not in the dark ages and in a dime novel.
Nowadays, a man doesn't risk capital punishment, lightly, for
the fun of springing on a total stranger, in the dark, with a
razor-edge knife. Mr. Standish, no man does a thing like that
to a stranger, or without some mighty motive. It is no
business of mine to ask that motive or to horn in on your
private affairs. And I don't care to. But, from your looks,
you're no fool. You know, as well as I do, that that was no
panhandler or even a highwayman. It was an enemy whose motive
for wanting to murder you, silently and surely, was strong
enough to make him willing to risk death or capture. Now,
when you say you don't need a bodyguard - Well, it's your own
business, of course. Let it go at that, if you like."

Long and silently Milo Standish looked down at the nonchalant
invalid. Above, the sounds of women's steps and an occasional
snatch of a sentence could be heard. At last, Milo spoke.

"You are right," said he, very slowly, and as if measuring his
every word. "You are right. There are one or two men who
would like to get this land and this house and - and other
possessions of mine. There is no reason for going into
particulars that wouldn't interest you. Take my word. Those
reasons are potent. I have reason to suspect that the assault
on me, this evening, is concerned with their general plan to
get rid of me. Perhaps - perhaps you're right, about my need
of a bodyguard. Though it's a humiliating thing for a grown
man - especially a man of my size and strength - to confess.
We'll talk it over, tomorrow, if you are well enough."

Brice nodded, absently, as if wearied with the exertion of
their talk. His eyes had left Milo's, and had concentrated on
the man's big and hairy hands. As Milo spoke of the
supposititious criminals who desired his possessions enough to
do murder for them, his fists clenched, tightly. And to
Brice's memory came a wise old adage:

"When you think a man is lying to you, don't watch his face.
Any poker-player can make his face a mask. Watch his hands.
Ten to one, if he is lying, he'll clench them."

Brice noted the tightening of the heavy fists. And he was
convinced. Yet, he told himself, in disgust, that even a
child of six would scarce have needed such confirmation that
the clumsily blurted tale was a lie.

He nodded again, as Milo looked at him with a shade of
anxiety.

The momentary silence was broken by footsteps on the stairs.
Claire was descending. Brice gathered his feet under him and
sat upright. It was easier, now, to do this, and his head had
recovered its feeling of normality, though it still ached
ferociously.

At the same instant, through the open doorway, from across the
lawn in the direction of the secret path, came the quaveringly
sweet trill of a mocking bird's song. Despite himself,
Gavin's glance turned toward the doorway.

"That's just a mocker," Milo explained, loudly, his face
reddening as he looked in perturbation at his guest. "Sweet,
isn't he? They often sing, off and on, for an hour or two
after dark."

"I know they do," said Gavin (though he did not say it aloud).
"But in Florida, the very earliest mocking bird doesn't sing
till around the first of March. And this isn't quite the
middle of February. There's not a mocking bird on the
Peninsula that is singing, yet. The very dulcet whistler, out
yonder, ought to make a closer study of ornithology. He - "

Brice's unspoken thought was shattered. For, unnoticed by
him, Milo Standish had drawn forth, with tender care, an
exquisitely carved and colored meerschaum pipe from a case on
the smoking-stand, and was picking up the fat tobacco jar.




CHAPTER IV

THE STRANGER FROM NOWHERE


For a moment, Brice stared agape and helplessly flustered, as
Standish proceeded to thrust his meerschaum's rich-hued bowl
into the tobacco jar. Then, apparently galvanized into action
by the approach of Claire from the stairway, he stepped
rapidly forward to meet her.

As though his shaky powers were not equal to the task he
reeled, lurched with all his might against the unprepared
Standish and, to regain his balance, took two plunging steps
forward.

He had struck Milo at such an angle as to rap the latter's
right elbow with a numbing force that sent the pipe flying
half way across the hall. The tobacco jar must have gone too,
had not one of Gavin's outflung hands caught it in mid-air, as
a quarterback might catch a football.

Unable to recover balance and to check his own momentum.
Brice scrambled awkwardly forward. One stamping heel landed
full on the fallen meerschaum, flattening and crumbling the
beautiful pipe into a smear of shapeless clay-fragments.

At the sight. Milo Standish swore loudly and came charging
forward in a belated hope of saving his beloved pipe from
destruction. The purchase of that meerschaum had been a joy
to Milo. Its coloring had been a long and careful process.
And now, this bungler had smashed it into nothingness!

Down on hands and knees went the big man, fumbling at the
fragments. Claire, knowing how her brother valued the pipe,
ran to his side in eager sympathy.

Gavin Brice came to a sliding standstill against a heavy
hall-table. On this he leaned heavily for a moment or so
above the tobacco jar he had so luckily salvaged from the
wreckage. His back to the preoccupied couple he flashed his
sensitive fingers into the jar, collecting and thrusting into
his pockets the watch and the thick roll of bills and as much
of the small change as his fast-groping fingertips could
locate.

By the time Milo looked up in impotent wrath from his
inspection of the ruined meerschaum. Gavin had turned toward
him and was babbling a torrent of apology for his own
awkwardness. Milo was glumly silent as the contrite words
beat about his ears. But Claire, shamed by her brother's
ungraciousness, spoke up courteously to relieve the visitor's
dire embarrassment.

"Please don't be unhappy about it. Mr. Brice," she begged.
"It was just an accident. It couldn't be helped. I'm sure my
brother - "

"But - " stammered Gavin.

"Oh, it's all right!" grumbled Milo, scooping up the handful
of crushed meerschaum. "Let it go at that.
I - "

Again, the mocking bird notes fluted forth through the early
evening silences, the melody coming as before from the
direction of the grove's hidden path. Milo stopped short in
his sulky speech. Brother and sister exchanged a swift
glance. Then Standish got to his feet and approached Gavin.

"Here we've kept you up and around when you're still too weak
to move without help!" he said in very badly done geniality.
"Take my arm and I'll help you upstairs. Your room's all
ready for you. If you'd rather I can carry you. How about
it?"

But a perverse imp of mischief entered Gavin Brice's aching
head.

"I'm all right now," he protested. "I feel fifty per cent
better. I'd much rather stay down here with you and Miss
Standish for a while, if you don't mind. My nerves are a bit
jumpy from that crack over the skull, and I'd like them to
quiet down before I go to bed."

Again, he was aware of that look of covert anxiety, between
sister and brother. Claire's big eyes strayed involuntarily
toward the front door. And her lips parted for some word of
urgence. But before she could speak, Milo laughed loudly and
caught Gavin by the arm.

"You've got pluck, Brice!" he cried admiringly. "You're
ashamed to give up and go to bed. But you're going just the
same. You're going to get a good night's rest. I don't
intend to have you fall sick from that tap I gave you with
the wrench. Come on! I'll bring you some fresh dressings for
your head by the time you're undressed."

As he talked he passed one huge arm around Gavin and carried,
rather than led, him to the stairway.

"Good night, Mr. Brice," called Claire from near the doorway.
"I do hope your head will be ever so much better in the
morning. If you want anything in the night, there's a
call-bell I've put beside your bed."

Once more a dizzy weakness seemed to have overcome Gavin. For
after a single attempt at resistance, he swayed and hung
heavy on Standish's supporting arm. He made shift to mumble a
dazed good night to Claire. Then he suffered Milo to support
him up the stairs and along the wide upper hall to the open
doorway of a bedroom.

Even at the threshold he seemed too uncertain of his footing
to cross the soft-lit room alone. And Milo supported him to
the bed. Gavin slumped heavily upon the side of it, his
aching head in his hands. Then, as if with much effort, he
lay down, burying his face in the pillow.

Milo had been watching him with growing impatience to be gone.
Now he said cheerily:

"That's all right, old chap! Lie still for a while. I'll be
up in a few minutes to help you undress."

Standish was hurrying from the room and closing the door
behind him, even as he spoke. With the last word the door
shut and Gavin could hear the big man's footsteps hastening
along the upper hall toward the stair-head.

Brice gave him a bare thirty seconds' start. Then, rising
with strange energy for so dazed and broken an invalid, he
left the room and followed him toward the head of the stairs.
His light footfall was soundless on the matting as he went.

He reached the top of the stairs just as Milo arrived at the
bottom. Claire was standing in the veranda doorway shading
her eyes and peering out into the darkness. But at sound of
her brother's advancing tread she turned and ran back to him,
meeting him as he reached the bottom of the stair and clasping
both hands anxiously about his big forearm.

She seemed about to break out in excited, even frightened
speech, when chancing to raise her eyes, she saw Gavin Brice
calmly descending from the hall above. At sight of him her
eyes dilated. Milo had begun to speak. She put one hand
warningly across her brother's bearded mouth. At the same
moment Gavin, halting midway on the stairs, said with
deprecatory meekness:

"You didn't tell me what time to be ready for breakfast. I'd
hate to be late and - "

He got no further. Nor did he seek to. His ears had been
straining to make certain of the ever approaching sound of
footsteps across the lawn. Now an impatient tread echoed on
the veranda, and a man's figure blocked the doorway.

The newcomer was slender, graceful, with the form of an
athletic boy rather than of a mature man. He was pallid and
black eyed. His face had a classic beauty which, on second
glance, was marred by an almost snakelike aspect of the small
black eyes and a sinister smile which seemed to hover
eternally around the thin lips. His whole bearing suggested
something serpentine in its grace and a smoothly half-jesting
deadliness.

So much the first glimpse told Brice as he stood there on the
stairs and surveyed the doorway. The second look showed him
the man was clad in a strikingly ornate yachting costume.
Gavin's mind, ever taught to dissect trifles, noted that in
spite of his yachtsman-garb the stranger's face was untanned,
and that his long slender hands with their supersensitive
fingers were as white and well-cared-for as a woman's.

Yachting, in Florida waters at any time of year, means either
a thick coat of tan or an exaggerated sunburn. This yachtsman
had neither.

Scarce taller than a lad of fifteen, yet his slender figure was
sinuous in its every line, and its grace betokened much wiry
strength. His face was that of a man in the early
thirties, - all but his eyes. They looked as old as the
Sphinx's.

He stood for an instant peering into the room, trying to focus
his night-accustomed eyes to the light. Evidently the first
objects he saw clearly were Milo and Claire standing with
their backs to him as they stared upward in blank dismay at
the guest they had thought safely disposed of for the night.

"Well?" queried the man at the door, and at sound of his
silken, bantering voice, brother and sister spun
about in surprise, to face him.

"Well?" he repeated, and now there was a touch of cold rebuke
in the silken tones. "Is this the way you keep a lookout for
the signals? I might very well have walked in on a convention
of half of Dade County, for all the guard that was kept. I
compliment - "

And now he broke off short in his sneering reproof, as his
eyes chanced upon Gavin half way down the stairs.

For a second or more no one spoke or moved. Claire and her
brother had an absurdly shamefaced appearance of two bad
children caught in mischief by a stern and much feared teacher.
Into the black depths of the stranger's eyes flickered a
sudden glint like that of a striking rattlesnake's. But at
once his face was a slightly-smiling mask once more. And
Gavin was left doubting whether or not he had really seen that
momentary gleam of murder behind the smiling eyes. It was
Claire who first recovered herself.

"Good evening, Rodney," she said, with a graciousness which
all-but hid her evident nerve strain. "You stole in on us so
suddenly you startled me. Mr. Brice, this is Mr. Rodney
Hade."

As Gavin bowed civilly and as Hade returned the salutation
with his eternal smile. Milo Standish came sufficiently out
of his own shock of astonishment to follow his sister's mode
of greeting the new visitor. With the same forced joviality
he had used in coercing Brice to go to bed, he sauntered over
to the smiling Hade, exclaiming:

"Why, hello, old man! Where did you blow in from? You must
have come across from your house on foot. I didn't hear the
car .... I want you to know Brice here. I was tackled by a
holdup man outside yonder a while ago. And he'd have gotten
me too, if Brice hadn't sailed into him. In the scrimmage I
made a fool of myself as usual, and slugged the wrong man with
a monkey wrench. Poor Brice's reward for saving my life was
a broken head. He's staying the night with us. He - "

The big man had spoken glibly, but with a nervousness which,
more and more, cropped out through his noisy joviality. Now,
under the coldly unwavering smile of Hade's snakelike eyes, he
stammered, and his booming voice trailed away to a mumble.
Again, Claire sought to mend the rickety situation. But now
Gavin Brice forestalled her. Passing one hand over his
bandaged forehead, he said:

"If you'll forgive me having butted in again. I'll go up to
my room. I'm pretty shaky, you see. I just wanted to know
what time breakfast is to be, and if I can borrow one of your
brother's razors in the morning."

"Breakfast is at seven o'clock," answered Claire. "That's a
barbarously early hour, I suppose for a New Yorker like you.
But down here from six to ten is the glorious part of the day.
Besides, we're farmers you know. Don't bother to try to wake
so early, please. I'll have your breakfast sent up to you.
Good night."

"I'll look in on you before I go to bed," called Milo after
him as he started up the stairs for the second time. "And
I'll see that shaving things are left in your bathroom. Good
night."

Hade said nothing, but continued to pierce the unbidden guest
with those gimlet-like smiling black eyes of his. His face
was expressionless. Gavin returned to the upper hall and
walked with needless heaviness toward the room assigned to
him. Reaching its door he opened and then shut it loudly,
himself remaining in the hallway. Scarce had the door slammed
when he heard from below Rodney Hade's voice raised in the
sharp question:

"What does this mean? You've dared to - ?"

"What the blazes else could I do?" blustered Milo - though
under the bluster ran a thread of placating timidity. "He
saved my life, didn't he? I was tackled by - "

"For one thing," suggested Hade, "you could have hit a little
harder with the wrench. If a blow is worth hitting at all
it's worth hitting to kill. You have the strength of an
elephant, and the nerve of a sheep."

"Rodney!" protested Claire, indignantly. "He - "

"I've seen his face somewhere," went on Hade unheeding. "I
could swear to that. I can't place it yet. But I shall.
Meantime get rid of him. And now I'll hear about this attack
on you .... Come out on the veranda. This hall reeks of
iodine and liniment and all such stuff. It smells like a
hospital ward. Come outside."

Despite the unvarying sweet smoothness of his diction, he
spoke as if giving orders to a servant. But apparently
neither of the two Standishes resented his
dictation. For Brice could hear them follow Hade out of the
house. And from the veranda presently came the booming murmur
of Standish's voice in a recital of some kind.

Gavin reopened his bedroom door and entered. Shutting the
door softly behind him, he made a brief mental inventory of
the room, then undressed and got into bed. Ten minutes later
Miles Standish came into the room, carrying fresh dressings
and a bottle of lotion. Gavin roused himself from a half-doze
and was duly grateful for the dexterous applying of the new
bandages to his bruised scalp.

"You work like a surgeon," he told Milo.

"Thanks," returned Standish drily, making no other comment on
the praise.

His task accomplished Standish bade his guest a curt good
night and left the room. A minute later Gavin got up and
stole to the door to verify a faint sound he fancied he had
heard. And he found he had been correct in his guess. For
the door was locked from the outside.

Brice crept to the windows. The room was in darkness, and,
unseen, he could look out on the darkness of the night. As he
looked a faint reddish spot of fire appeared in the gloom,
just at the beginning of the lawn. Some one, cigar in mouth,
was evidently keeping a watch on his room's windows. Gavin
smiled to himself, and went back to bed.

"Door locked, windows guarded," he reflected, amusedly. "I
owe that to Mr. Hade's orders. Seen me before, has he? I'll
bet my year's income he'll never remember where or when or
how. At that he's clever even to think he's seen me. It
looks as if I had let myself in for a wakeful time down here,
doesn't it? But I'm getting the tangled ends all in my
hands, - as fast as I had any right to hope. That rap on the
skull was a godsend. He can't refuse me a job after my fight
for him. No one could. I - oh, if it wasn't for the girl
this would be great! What can a girl, with eyes like hers, be
doing in a crowd like this?

"I'd - I'd have been willing to swear she was - was - one of the
women whom God made. And now - ! Still, if a woman lets
herself in for this kind of thing she can't avoid paying the
bill. Only - if I can save her without - Oh, I'm turning into
a mushy fool in my old age! ... And she sobbed when she
thought I was killed! ... I've got to get a real night's rest
if I want to have my wits about me to-morrow."

He stretched himself out luxuriously in the cool bed, and in
less than five minutes he was sleeping as sweetly and as
deeply as a child. Long experience in the European trenches
and elsewhere had taught him the rare gift of slumbering at
will, a gift which had done much toward keeping his nerves and
his faculties in perfect condition. For sleep is the keynote
to more than mankind realizes.


The sun had risen when Gavin Brice awoke. Apart from
stiffness and a very sore head his inured system was little
the worse for the evening's misadventures. A cold shower and
a rubdown and a shave in the adjoining bathroom cleared away
the last mists from his brain.

He dressed quickly, glanced at his watch and saw the hour was
not quite seven. Then he faced his bedroom door and
hesitated.

"If he's a born idiot," he mused, "it's still locked. If he
isn't it's unlocked and the key has been taken away. I've
made noise enough while I was dressing."

He turned the knob. The door opened readily. The key was
gone. In the hallway outside the room and staring up at him


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