Albert Payson Terhune.

Black Caesar's Clan : a Florida Mystery Story online

. (page 7 of 15)
Online LibraryAlbert Payson TerhuneBlack Caesar's Clan : a Florida Mystery Story → online text (page 7 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


would follow, and would pile up on a sunken reef that the
pirates had just steered around."

"Clever work!"

"They were a thrifty and shrewd crowd those old-time
black-flaggers. After they were wiped out the wreckers still
reaped their fine harvest by signaling ships onto reefs at
night. Their descendants live down among some of the keys
still. We call them 'conchs,' around here. They're an
illiterate, uncivilized, furtive, eccentric lot. And they
pick up some sort of living off wrecked ships and off what
cargo washes ashore from the wrecks. A missionary went down
there and tried to convert them. He found the 'conch'
children already had religion enough to pray every night.
'Lord, send a wreck!' The conchs gather a lot of plunder
every year. They - "

"Do they sell it or claim salvage on it, or - ?"

"Not they. That would call for too much brain and education
and for mixing with civilization. They wear it, or put it to
any crazy use they can think of. For instance fifty
sewing-machines were in the cargo of a tramp steamer bound
from Charleston to Brazil one winter. She ran ashore a few
miles south of here. The conchs got busy with the plunder.
The cargo was a veritable godsend to them. They used the
sewing machines as anchors for their boats. Another time a
box of shoes washed ashore. They were left-hand shoes, all
of them. The right-hand box must have landed somewhere else.
And a hundred conchs blossomed forth with brand new shoes.
They could wear the left shoe, of course, with no special
bother. And they slit down the vamp of the shoe they put on
the right foot, so their toes could stick out and not be
cramped. A good many people think they still lure ships
ashore by flares. But the lighthouse service has pretty well
put a stop to that."

"This chap I was speaking about, - the fellow who told me so
much about this region," said Gavin, "told me there is
supposed to be pirate gold buried in more than one of these
keys."

"Rot!" snorted Milo with needless vehemence. "All poppycock!
Look at it sanely for a minute, and you'll see that all the
yarns of pirate gold-including Captain Kidd's - are rank
idiocy. In the first place, the pirates never seized any
such fabulous sums of money as they were credited with. The
bullion ships always went under heavy man-o'-war escort. When
pirates looted some fairly rich merchant ship there were
dozens of men to divide the plunder among. And they sailed to
the nearest safe port to blow it all on an orgy. Of course,
once in a blue moon they buried or hid the valuables they got
from one ship while they went after another. And if they
chanced to sink or be captured and hanged during such a raid
the treasure remained hidden. If they survived, they blew it.
That's the one off-chance of there ever being any buried
pirate treasure. And there would be precious little of it.
at that. A few hundred dollars worth at most. No, Brice.
this everlasting legend of buried treasure is fine in a
sea-yarn. But in real life it's buncombe."

"But this same man told me there were stories of bullion ships
and even more modern vessels carrying a money cargo that sank
in these waters, during storms or from running into reefs,"
pursued Brice, with no great show of interest, as he leaned
far overside for a second glimpse at a school of five-foot
baracuda which lay basking on the snowy surface of the sand.
two fathoms below the boat. "That, at least, sounds probable.
doesn't it?"

"No," snapped Milo flushing angrily and his brow creasing, "it
doesn't. These water are traversed every year by thousands
of craft of all sizes. The water is crystal clear. Any
wrecked ship could be seen at the bottom. Why, everybody has
seen the hull of that old tramp steamer a few miles above
here. It's in deep water, at that. What chance - ?"

"Yet there are hundreds of such stories afloat," persisted
Brice. "And there are more yarns of buried treasure among the
keys than there are keys. For instance didn't old Caesar, the
negro pirate, hang out here, somewhere?"

Milo laughed again, this time with a maddening tolerance.

"Oh, Caesar?" said he. "To be sure. He's as much a legend of
these keys as Lafitte is of New Orleans. He was an escaped
slave, who scraped together a dozen fellow-ruffians, black and
white and yellow - mostly yellow - about a century ago, and
stole a long boat or a broken-down sloop, and started in at
the trade of pirate. He didn't last long. And there's no
proof he ever had any special success. But he's the sea-hero
of the conchs. They've named a key and a so-called creek
after him, and in my father's time there used to be an old
iron ring in a bowlder known as 'Caesar's Rock.' The ring was
probably put there by oystermen. But the conchs insisted
Caesar used to tie up there. Then there's the 'Pirates'
Punchbowl,' off Coconut Grove. Caesar is supposed to have dug
that. He - "

An enormous sailfish - dazzlingly metallic blue and silver - broke
from the calm water just ahead, and whirled high in air,
smiting the bay again with a splash that sounded like a
gunshot.

"That fellow must have been close to seven feet long,"
commented Milo as the two men watched the churned water where
the fish had struck. "He's the kind you see when you aren't
trolling. He's after a school of ballyhoos or mossbunkers
.... There's Roustabout Key just ahead," he finished as
their launch rounded an outcrop of rock and came in view of a
mile-long wooded island a bare thousand yards off the weather
bow.

A mangrove fringe covered the shoreline, two thirds of the way
around the key. At the eastern end was a strip of snowy beach
backed by an irregular line of coconut palms, and with a very
respectable dock in the foreground. From the pier a wooden
path led upward through the scattering double row of palms to
a corrugated iron hut, with smaller huts and outbuildings half
seen through the foliage-vistas beyond.

"I've some fairly good mango trees back yonder," said Standish
as he brought the launch alongside the dock's wabbly float,
"and grapefruit that is paying big dividends at last. The
mangoes won't be ripe till June, of course. But they're sold
already, to the last half-bushel of them."

"'Futures,' eh?" suggested Gavin.

"'Futures,'" assented Milo. "And 'futures' in farming are
just about as certain as in Wall Street. There's a mighty
gamble to this farm-game."

"How long have - ?" began Gavin, then stopped short and
stared.

One or two negro laborers had drifted down toward the dock, as
the boat warped in at the float. Now, from the corrugated
iron hut appeared a white man, who, at sight of the boat,
broke into a limping run and was in time to catch the line
which Milo flung at him.

The man was sparsely and sketchily clad. At first, his
tanned face seemed to be of several different colors and to
have been modeled by some bungling caricaturist. Yet, despite
this eccentricity of aspect, something about the obsequiously
hurrying man struck Brice as familiar. And, all at once, he
recognized him.

This was the big beach comber with whom Gavin had fought
barely twenty-four hours earlier. The man bore bruises and
swellings a-plenty on his rugged features, where Brice's
whalebone blows had crashed. And they had distorted his face
almost past recognition. He moved, too, with manifest
discomfort, as if all his huge body were as sore as his
visage.

"Hello, Roke!!" hailed Milo genially, then in amaze, "what in
thunder have you been doing to yourself? Been trying to stop
the East Coast Flyer? Or did you just get into an argument
with one of the channel dredges?"

"Fell," said Roke, succinctly, jerking his thumb back toward
the corrugated iron hut. "Climbed my roof to mend a leak.
Fell. My face hit every bump. Then I landed on a pile of
coconuts. I'm sore all over. I - "

He gurgled, mouthingly, as his swollen eyes chanced to light
on Gavin Brice, who was just following Milo from the launch
to the float. And his discolored and unshaven jaw went slack.

"Oh, Brice," said Standish carelessly. "This is my foreman
here, Perry Roke. As a rule he looks like other people,
except that he's bigger, just now his cravings for falling off
corrugated roofs have done things to his face. Shake hands
with him. If you like the job I'm going to offer you he and
you will be side-partners over here."

Gavin faced his recent adversary, grinning pleasantly up at
the battered and scowling face, and noting that the knife
sheath at Roke's hip was still empty.

"Hello!" he said civilly, offering his hand.

Roke gulped again, went purple, and, with sudden furious
vehemence, grabbed at the proffered hand, enfolding it in his
own monstrous grip in an industrious attempt to smash its
every bone.

But reading the intent with perfect ease. Brice shifted his
own hand ever so little and with nimbly practised fingers
eluded the crushing clasp, at the same time slipping his thumb
over the heel of Roke's clutching right hand and letting his
three middle fingers meet at the exact center of that hand's
back. Then, tightening his hold, he gave an almost
imperceptible twist. It was one of the first and the simplest
of the tricks his jiu-jutsu instructor had taught him. And,
as ever with an opponent not prepared for it, the grip served.

To the heedlessly watching Standish he seemed merely to be
accepting the invitation to shake hands with Roke. But the
next instant, under the apparently harmless contact, Roke's
big body veered sharply to one side, from the hips upward,
and a bellow of raging pain broke from his puffed lips.

"Oh, I beg your pardon!" cried Brice in quick contrition: "You
must have hurt your hand when you fell off that roof. I'm
sorry if I made it worse."

Nursing his wrenched wrist. Roke glowered hideously at the
smiling Gavin. Brice could feel no compunction for his own
behavior. For he remembered the hurled knife and the brutal
kicking of the dog. Yet he repented him of the hand-twisting
trick. For if he and Roke were expected to work together as
Milo had said, he had certainly made a most unfortunate
beginning to their acquaintanceship, and just now he had added
new and painful aggravation to his earlier offense.

Milo was surveying the sufferer with no great pity, as Roke
bent over his hurt wrist.

"Too bad!" commented Standish. "I suppose that will put a
crimp in your violin-playing for a while."

Turning to Gavin who looked in new surprise at the giant on
hearing of this unexpected accomplishment. Milo explained:

"I hired Roke to run this key for me and keep the conchs and the
coons at work. But I've got a pretty straight tip that, as soon
as my back is turned, he cuts indoors and spends most of his day
whanging at that disreputable old violin of his. And when Rodney
Hade comes over here. I can't get a lick of work out of Roke,
for love or money. Hade is one of the best amateur violinists
in America, and he's daft on playing. He drops in here, every
now and then - he has an interest with me in the groves - and as
soon as he catches sight of Roke's violin, he starts playing it.
That means no more work out of Roke till Hade chooses to stop.
He just stands, with his mouth wide open, hypnotized. Can't
drag him away for a second. Hey, Roke?"

Roke had ceased nursing his wrist and had listened
with sheepish amusement to his employer's guying. But at this
question, he made answer:

"I'm here now."

He jerked the thumb of his uninjured hand toward a spic-and-span
launch which lay moored between two sodden scows, and
then nodded in the direction of the corrugated iron hut among
the trees.

Listening - though the wind set the wrong way for it - Brice
could hear faintly the strains of a violin, played ever so
softly and with a golden wealth of sweetness. Even at that
distance, by listening closely, he could make out a phrase or
so of Dvorak's "Hiawatha" music from the "New World Symphony."
Milo's loud laugh broke in on his audition and on the suddenly
rapt look upon Roke's bruised face.

"Come along!" said Standish, leading the way toward the house.
"Music's a fine thing, I'm told. But it doesn't spray a
grapefruit orchard or keep the scale off of mango trees. Come
up to the house. I want to show you over the island and have
a chat with you about the job I have in mind."

As Milo strode on the two others fell in step behind him.
Brice lowered his voice and said to the sulking Roke:

"That collie belongs to Mr. Standish. I did you a good turn
it seems by keeping you from stealing him. You'd have been in
a worse fix than you are now, if Mr. Standish had come over
here to-day and found him on the island."

Roke did not deign to reply, but moved a little farther from
the speaker.

"At this rate," said Brice pleasantly, "you and I are likely
to have a jolly time together, out here. I can't imagine a
merrier chum for a desert island visit. I only hope I won't
neglect my work chatting with you all day."

Roke eyed him obliquely as he plodded on, and his battered
lip-corner lifted a little in what looked like a beast snarl.
But he said nothing.

Then they were at the shallow porch of the hut and Milo
Standish had thrown open its iron door letting out a gush of
golden melody from the violin. At his hail, the music
ceased. And Rodney Hade, fiddle in hand, appeared in the
doorway.

"You're late," said the violinist, speaking to Milo with that
ever-smiling suavity which Gavin recalled from the night
before, and ignoring Gavin entirely "You've kept me waiting."

Despite the smooth voice and the eternal smile there was an
undernote of rebuke in the words, as of a teacher who reproves
a child for tardiness. And, meekly, Standish replied:

"I'm sorry. I was detained at Miami. And lunch was late. I
got here as soon as I could. I - "

With an impatient little wave of one white hand. Hade checked
his excuses and dismissed the subject. In the same moment his
snakelike black eyes fixed themselves on Brice whom he seemed
to notice for the first time. The eyes were smiling. But he
granted the guest no further form of salutation, as he asked
abruptly:

"Where have I seen you before?"

"You saw me last night," returned Gavin, still wondering at
this man's dictatorial attitude toward the aggressive Milo
Standish and at Milo's almost cringing acceptance of it. "I
was at the Standishes. I was just starting for bed when you
dropped in. Miss Standish introduced - "

"I'm not speaking about last night," curtly interrupted Hade,
though his voice was as soft as ever and his masklike face was
set in its everlasting smile. "I mean, where did I run across
you before last night?"

"Well. Mr. Bones," answered Gavin with flippant insolence,
"Dat am de question propounded. Where did you-all run acrost
me befo' las' night?"

Milo and Roke stirred convulsively, as if scandalized that any
one should dare speak with such impudence to Hade. Rodney
himself all but lost the eternal smile from his thin lips: and
his voice was less suave than usual as he said:

"I don't care for impertinence, especially from employees.
You will bear that in mind. Now you will answer my question.
Where did I see you?"

"If you can't remember," countered Gavin, "you can hardly
expect me to. I live in New York. I have lived there or
thereabouts for a number of years. I was overseas - stationed
at Bordeaux and then at Brest - for a few months in 1918. As a
boy I lived on my father's farm in northern New York State,
near Manlius. That's the best answer I can give you. If it
will make you recall where you've seen me - all right. If not
I'm afraid I can't help you out. In any case what does it
matter? I don't claim to be anybody especial. I have no
references. Mr. Standish knows that. If he's willing to give
me some sort of job in spite of such drawbacks, it seems to
be entirely his affair."

"The job I had - have - in mind for you," spoke up Milo, at a
glance from Hade, "is on this key, here. I need an extra man
in the main storehouse to oversee the roustabouts there. At
this season Roke is too busy outdoors to keep the right kind
of eye on them. The pay won't be large to start with. But if
you make good at it. I may have something better to offer you
on the mainland. Or I may not. In any case. I understand
this is only a stopgap for you, and that you are down here for
your health. If you are interested in the idea, well and
good. If not - "

He paused and glanced at Hade as if for prompting. Throughout
his harangue Standish had given Brice the impression of a man
who recites a lesson taught him by another. Now Hade took up
the tale.

"I think," said he smilingly - his momentary impatience gone - "I
think, before answering - in fact before coming down to
terms and other details - you might perhaps care to stroll
around the island a little, and get an idea of it for
yourself. It may be you won't care to stay here. It may be
you will like it very much. Mr. Standish and I have some
routine business to talk over with Roke. Suppose you take a
walk over the place? Roke, assign one of the men to go with
him and show him around."

With instant obedience. Roke started for the door. Indeed, he
had almost reached it before Hade ceased speaking. Gavin raised
his brows at this swift anticipation of orders. And into his
mind came an odd thought.

"You seemed surprised to see me this afternoon," said he as he
followed Roke to the porch and closed the door behind them.
"Yet Mr. Hade had told you I was coming here. He had told
you, and he had told you to have some one ready to show me
over the island."

As he spoke Gavin indicated with a nod a man who was trotting
across the sandy clearing toward them.

"Didn't know it was you!" grunted Roke, too surprised by the
direct assertion to fence. "Said some feller would come with
Mr. Standish. He - . How'd you know he told me?" he demanded
in sudden angry bewilderment.

"There!" exclaimed Gavin admiringly. "I knew we'd chat along
as lovingly as two turtle-doves when once we'd get really
started. You're quite a talker when you want to be, Rokie my
lad! If only you didn't speak as if you were trying to save
words on a telegram. Here's the chap you'd ordered to be
cruising in the offing as my escort, eh?" as the barefoot
roustabout reached the porch. "All right. Good-by."

Leaving the grumbling and muttering Roke scowling after him.
Brice stepped out onto the sand to meet the newcomer. The
roustabout apparently belonged to the conch tribe of which
Milo had spoken. Thin, undersized, swarthy, with features
that showed a trace of negro and perhaps of Indian blood as
well, he had a furtive manner and seemed to cringe away from
the Northerner as they set off across the clearing, toward the
distant huts and still more distant orchards.

He was bareheaded and stoop-shouldered. Beyond a ragged pair
of drill trousers - indescribably dirty - his only garment was a
still dirtier and raggeder undershirt. His naked feet flapped
awkwardly, like a turtle's. He was not a pretty or
prepossessing sight.

Across the clearing he pattered, head down, still cringing
away from the visitor. As the two entered the shadows of the
nearest grove Gavin Brice glanced quickly around him on all
sides. The conch did the same. Then the two moved on with
the same distance between them as before.

And as they went Gavin spoke. He spoke in a low tone, not
moving his lips or looking directly toward the other man.

"Good boy, Davy!" he said, approvingly. "How did you get the
job of taking me around? I was afraid I'd have to look for
you."

"Two other men were picked out to do it sir," said the conch
without slackening his pace or turning his head. "One after
the other. One was a nigger. One was a conch. Both of 'em
got sick. I paid 'em to. And I paid the nigger an extra five
to tell Roke I'd be the best man to steer you. He said he'd
been on jobs with me before. He and the conch are malingering
in the sick shed. Ipecac. I gave it to 'em."

"Good!" repeated Gavin. "Mighty good. Now what's the idea?"

"You're to be kept over here, sir," said the conch. "I don't
know why. Roke told me you're a chum of Hade's, and that
Hade's doing it to have a bit of fun with you. So I'm to lead
you around awhile, showing you the plant and such. Then I'm
to take you to the second storage hut and tell you we've got a
new kind of avocado stored in there, and let you go in ahead
of me, and I'm to slam the spring-lock door on you."

"Hm! That all, Davy?"

"Yes, sir. Except of course that it's a lie. Hade don't play
jokes or have fun with any one. If he's trying to keep you
locked up here a while it's most likely a sign he don't want
you on the mainland for some reason. Maybe that sounds
foolish. But it's all the head or tail I can make out of it,
sir."

"It doesn't 'sound foolish,'" contradicted Brice. "As it
happens it's just what he wants to do. I don't know just why.
But I mean to find out. He wants me away from a house over
there. A house I had a lot of trouble in getting a foothold
in. It's taken me the best part of a month. And now I don't
mean to spend another month in getting back there."

"No, sir," said Davy, respectfully, still plodding on in
front with head and shoulders bent. "No, sir. Of course.
But - if you'll let me ask, sir - does Hade know? Does he
suspicion you? If that's why he's framed this then Roustabout
Key is no place for you. No more is Dade County. He - "

"No," returned Gavin, smiling at the real terror that had
crept into the other's tone. "He doesn't know. And I'm sure
he doesn't suspect. But he has a notion he's seen me
somewhere. And he's a man who doesn't take chances. Besides
he wants me away from the Standish house. He wants every
outsider away from it. And I knew this would be the likeliest
place for him to maroon me. That's why I sent you word ....
I'm a bit wobbly in my beliefs about the Standishes, - one of
them anyhow. Now, where's this storehouse prison of mine?"

"Over there, sir, to the right. But - "

"Take me over there. And walk slowly. I've some things to
say to you on the way, and I want you to get them straight in
your memory."

"Yes, sir," answered the conch, shifting his course, so as to
bring his steps in a roundabout way toward the squat
storeroom. "And before you begin there's an extra key to the
room under the second packing box to the right. I made it
from Roke's own key when I made duplicates of all the keys
here. I put it there this morning. In case you should want
to get out, you can say you found it lying on the floor there.
I rusted all the keys I made so they look old. He'll likely
think it's an extra key that was lost somewhere in there."

"Thanks," said Gavin. "You're a good boy. And you've got
sense. Now listen: - "

Talking swiftly and earnestly, he followed Davy toward the
square little iron building, the conch outwardly making no
sign that he heard. For, not many yards away, a handful of
conchs and negroes were at work on a half-completed shed.

Davy came to the store-room door, and opened it. Then,
turning to Brice he said aloud in the wretched dialect of his
class:

"Funny avocado fruits all pile up in yon. Mighty funny. Make
yo' laugh. Want to go see? Look!"

He swung wide the iron door and pointed to the almost totally
dark interior.

"Funny to see in yon," he said invitingly. "Never see any
like 'em befo'. I strike light for you. Arter you, my boss."

One or two men working on the nearby shed had stopped their
labor and were glancing covertly toward them.

"Oh, all right!" agreed Brice, his uninterested voice
carrying well though it was not noticeably raised. "It seems
a stuffy sort of hole. But I'll take a look at it if you
like. Where's that light you're going to strike? It - "

As he spoke he sauntered into the storeroom. His lazy speech
was cut short by the clangorous slamming of the iron door
behind him. Conscientiously he pounded on the iron and yelled
wrathful commands to Davy to open. Then when he thought he
had made noise enough to add verity to his role and to free
the conch from any onlooker's suspicion he desisted.

Groping his way through the dimness to the nearest box, he
sat down, philosophically, to wait.

"Well," he mused sniffing in no approval at all at the musty
air of the place and peering up at the single eight-inch
barred window that served more for ventilation than for light.


1 2 3 4 5 7 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

Online LibraryAlbert Payson TerhuneBlack Caesar's Clan : a Florida Mystery Story → online text (page 7 of 15)