Albert Payson Terhune.

Black Caesar's Clan : a Florida Mystery Story online

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"Well, here we are. And here, presumably, we stay till
Standish and Hade go back to the mainland. Then I'm to be let
out by Roke, with many apologies for Davy's mistake. There'll
be no way of getting back. The boats will be hidden or
padlocked. And here I'll stay, with Roke for a chum, till
whatever is going on at Standish's house is safely finished
with. It's a pretty program. If I can get away to-night
without Roke's finding it out till morning - "

His eyes were beginning to accustom themselves to the room.
Its corners and farther reaches and most of its floor were
still invisible. But, by straining his gaze, he could just
make out the shapes of a crate or two and several packing
boxes close to the wall. The central space was clear. In
spite of the stuffiness, there was a damp chill to the gloomy
place, by contrast to the vivid sunlight and the sweep of the
trade-winds, outside.

Gavin stretched himself out at full length on the long box,
and prepared to take a nap. First he reached toward the next
box - the one under which Davy had told him the key was hidden - and
moved it an inch or so to make certain it was not full
enough to cause him any especial effort in case he should not
be released until next day and should have need of the key.
Then he shut his eyes, and let himself drift toward slumber.

It was perhaps two hours later when he was roused from a light
doze by hearing something strike the concrete floor of his
prison, not six feet from his head. The thing had fallen
with a slithering, uneven sound, such as might be made by the
dropping of a short length of rope.

Brice sat up. He noted that the room was no longer light
enough to see across. And he glanced in the direction of the
window. Its narrow space was blocked by something. And as he
looked he heard a second object slither to the floor.

"Some one's dropping things down here through that
ventilator," he conjectured.

And at the same moment a third fall sounded, followed almost
at once by a fourth. Then, for a second, the window space was
clear, only to be blocked again as the person outside returned
to his post. And in quick succession three more objects were
sent slithering down to the floor. After which the window was
cleared once more, and Brice could hear receding steps.

But he gave no heed to the steps. For as the last of the
unseen things had been slid through the aperture, another
sound had focused all his attention, and had sent queer little
quivers up his spine.

The sound had been a long-drawn hiss.

And Gavin Brice understood. Now he knew why the softly
falling bodies had slithered so oddly down the short distance
between window and floor. And he read aright the slippery
crawling little noises that had been assailing his ears.

The unseen man outside had thrust through the ventilator not
less than seven or eight snakes, carried thither, presumably,
in bags.

Crouching on his long box Gavin peered about him. Faintly
against the dense gray of the shadowy floor, he could see
thick ropelike forms twisting sinuously to and fro, as if
exploring their new quarters or seeking exit. More than once,
as these chanced to cross one another's path, that same
long-drawn hiss quavered out into the dark silences.

And now Brice's nostrils were assailed by a sickening smell as
of crushed cucumbers. And at the odor his fists tightened in
new fear. For no serpents give off that peculiar odor,
except members of the pit-viper family.

"They're not rattlesnakes," he told himself. "For a scared or
angry rattler would have this room vibrating with his whirr.
We're too far south for copperheads. The - the only other
pit-viper I ever heard of in Florida is the - cotton-mouth
moccasin!"

At the realization he was aware of a wave of physical terror
that swept him like a breath of ice.

Without restoratives at hand the moccasin's bite is certain
death. The plan had been well thought out. At the very first
step the frantic prisoner might reasonably be relied on to
encounter one or more of the crawling horrors. The box on
which he crouched was barely eighteen inches high. The next
box - under which rested the key - was several feet away. The
door was still farther off.

Truly Standish and Hade appeared to have hit on an excellent
plan for getting rid of the man they wanted out of the way!
It would be so easy for Roke to explain to possible inquirers
that Brice had chanced to tread on a poisonous snake in his
wanderings about the key!

The slightest motion might well be enough to stir to active
hostility the swarm of serpents already angered by their
sudden dumping into this clammy den.

Weaponless, helpless, the trapped man crouched
there and waited.




CHAPTER VI

IN THE DAY OF BATTLE


As Gavin Brice sat with feet drawn up under him, listening to
the gruesome slither of the moccasins along the concrete
floor just below he was gripped for a minute by irresistible
terror. It was all so simple - so complete! And he had been
calmly self-confident of his ability to command the situation,
to play these people's own game and to beat them at it.
Grinning and open-eyed he had marched into the trap. He had
been glad to let Hade and Standish think him safely out of
their way, and had planned so confidently to return by stealth
to the mainland that night and to Milo's house!

And now they had had absolutely no difficulty in caging him,
and in arranging that he should be put forever out of their
way. The most stringent inquiry - should any such be made - could
only show that he had been bitten once or more by a
deadly snake. Any post-mortem would bear out the statement.

It was known to every one that many of the keys - even several
miles from the mainland - are infested by rattlesnakes and by
other serpents, though how such snakes ever got to the islands
is as much of a mystery to the naturalist world as is the
presence of raccoons and squirrels on the same keys. It is
simply one of the hundred unsolvable mysteries and puzzles of
the subtropic region.

In his jiu-jutsu instructions Brice had learned a rule which
he had carried into good effect in other walks of life.
Namely to seem to play one's opponent's game and to be fooled
by it, and then, taking the conquering adversary by surprise,
to strike. Thus he had fallen in with Standish's suggestion
that he come to the island, though he had thought himself
fairly sure as to the reason for the request. Thus, too, he
had let himself be lured into this storeroom, still smugly
confident that he held the whip hand of the situation.

And as a result he was looking into the ghastly eyes of death.

Like an engine that "races," his fertile brain was unduly
active in this moment of stark horror, and it ran uselessly.
Into his over-excited mind flashed pictures of a thousand bits
of the past - one of them, by reason of recent association far
more vivid than the rest.

He saw himself with four other A.E.F. officers, standing in a
dim corner of a high-ceiled old room in a ruined chateau in
Flanders. In the room's center was a table. Around this
were grouped a double line of uniformed Americans - a
court-martial. In came two provosts' men leading between them
a prisoner, a man in uniform and wearing the insignia of a
United States army major - the cleverest spy it was said in
all the Wilhelmstrasse's pay, a genius who had grown rich at
his filthy trade of selling out his country's secrets, and
who had been caught at last by merest chance.

The prisoner had glanced smilingly about the half-lit room as
he came in. For the barest fraction of a second his gaze had
flickered over Gavin Brice and the three other officers who
stood there in the shadow. Then, with that same easy,
confident smile on his masklike, pallid face, the spy had
turned his glittering black eyes on the officers at the
courtmartial table.

"Gentlemen," he had said amusedly, "you need not go through
the farce of trying me. I am guilty. I say this with no
bravado and with no fear. Because the bullet has never been
molded and the rope has never been plaited that can kill me.
And the cell is not yet made that can hold me."

He had said it smilingly, and in a velvet suave voice. Yes,
and he had made good his boast. For - condemned to die at
daylight - he had escaped from his ill-constructed prison room
in the chateau a little before dawn and had gotten clean away
after killing one of his guards.

"He never set eyes on me except for that instant, there in the
shadows," Brice found himself reflecting for the hundredth
time. "And there were all the others with me. Yet last night
he recalled my face. It's lucky he didn't recall where he'd
seen it. Or - perhaps he did."

With a start, he came out of his half-hypnotic daze - a daze
which had endured but a few seconds. And once more his
rallying will-power and senses made him acutely alive to the
hideous peril in which he crouched.

Then - in one of the odd revulsions which flash across men at
unnaturally high tension - his daze and his terror merged all
at once into a blaze of wholesome rage. Nor was his rage
directed against Rodney Hade, but against Milo Standish, the
man whose life he had saved not twenty hours earlier, and who
had repaid that mighty service now by helping to arrange his
murder.

At the thought Brice grew hot with fury. He longed to stand
face to face with the blackguard who had rewarded a life-gift
in such vile fashion. He yearned to tell Standish in fiery
words how unspeakable had been the action, and then foot to
foot, fist to fist, to take out of the giant's hide some tithe
of the revenge due for such black ingratitude.

The ferocious impulse set steady his quivering nerves. No
longer did his brain race uselessly. Again it was alert,
resourceful, keen.

Standish! Yes, and no doubt Standish's sister too! The girl
whose eyes had made him feel as if he were on holy ground - the
girl whom he had been so irritatingly unable to get out of his
mind!

With an angry shake of the head Gavin dismissed Claire from
his thoughts. And his newborn hate concentrated on her
brother who had betrayed to death his rescuer. Obsessed with
the fierce craving to stand face to face with the
blonde-bearded giant he banished his lethargy of hopelessness
and cast about for means of escape out of this seemingly
inescapable snare.

First, the key must be found. Then the door must be reached
and opened. In the way of both enterprises writhed a half
dozen or more deadly snakes. And to the problem of winning
past them alive and getting to his enemy. Gavin Brice bent
his trained faculties.

The box whereon he sat was covered with loose boards nailed
down only at one end, a long strip of thin iron or copper
binding the one unopened edge. So much his groping fingers
told him. Moving to one corner of the box top he pushed aside
a board and plunged his hand into the interior. It was as he
had hoped. According to custom when the box had been emptied
the jute and shredded paper stuffing of its contents had been
thrust back into it for future use.

Feverishly, Gavin began to pull forth great handfuls of paper
and of excelsior. These he piled onto the box top. Then,
exerting all his skilled strength, he tugged at the narrow
iron strip which bound, lengthwise, one side of the box.

This task was by no means easy, for the nails were long. And
the iron's sharp edges cut cruelly into the tugging fingers.
But, inch by inch, he tore it free. And at the end of three
minutes he was strengthening and testing a willowy five-foot
strip of metal. Laying this across his knees and fishing up
another double handful of the packing paper and jute he groped
in his pockets with bleeding fingertips for a match.

He found but one. Holding it tenderly he scraped its surface
against his nail - a trick he had picked up in the army. The
sulphur snapped and ignited, the wooden sliver burning freely
in that windless air.

Giving it a good start, he touched the point of flame to the
piled jute and paper in front of him. It caught in an
instant. Still holding the lighted match, he repeated this
ticklish process time after time, tossing handfuls of the
blazing stuff down onto the floor at his side.

In two minutes more he had a gayly-flaming pile of inflammable
material burning high there. Its gleam lightened every inch
of the gloomy room. It brought out into hideous clearness the
writhing dark bodies of the crawling moccasins, even to the
patches of white at their lips which gave them their sinister
name of "cottonmouths." Fat and short and horrible to look
upon, they were, as they slithered and twisted here and there
along the bright-lit floor or coiled and hissed at sight of
the flame and of the fast plying hand and arm of the captive
just above them.

But Brice had scant eyes or heed for them. Now that his blaze
was started past danger of easy extinction, he plunged both
hands again into the box. And now, two handfuls at a time.
he began to cast forth more and more of the stuffing.

With careful aim he threw it. Presently there was a wide line
of jute and paper extending from the main blaze across to the
next box. Then another began to pile up in an opposite
direction, toward the door. The fire ran greedily along these
two lines of fuel.

Meantime the room was no longer so clearly lighted as at
first. For the smoke billowed up to the low roof, and in
thick waves poured out through the small ventilator. Such of
it as could not find this means of outlet doubled back
floorward, filling the room with chokingly thick fumes which
wellnigh blinded and strangled the man and blotted out all
details of shape and direction.

But already Gavin Brice had slipped to the floor, his
thin-shod feet planted in the midst of the blaze, whose flames
and sparks licked eagerly at his ankles and legs.

Following the trail of fire which led to the box. Gavin
strode through the very center of this blazing path, heedless
of the burns. Well did he know the snakes would shrink away
from actual contact with the fire. And he preferred surface
burns to a fatal bite in ankle or foot.

As he reached the box its corners had already caught fire from
the licking flames below. Heaving up the burning receptacle.
Brice looked under it. There lay the rusty key, just visible
through the lurid smoke glare. But not ten inches away from
the far side of it coiled a moccasin, head poised
threateningly as the box grazed it under Gavin's sharp heave.

Stooping, Brice snatched up a great bunch of the flaming paper
and flung it on the serpent's shining coils. In practically
the same gesture he reached with lightning quickness for the
key.

By a few inches he had missed his hurried aim for the
moccasin. He had intended the handful of fire to land on the
floor just in front of it, thus causing it to shrink back.
Instead the burning particles had fallen stingingly among its
coils.

The snake twisted its arrow-shaped head as if to see what had
befallen it. Then catching sight of Brice's swooping hand it
struck.

But the glance backward and the incredibly quick withdrawal of
the man's hand combined to form the infinitesimal space which
separated Gavin from agonizing death. The snake's striking
head missed the fast-retreating fingers by less than a hair's
breadth. The fangs met on the wards of the rusty key Brice
had caught up in his fingertips. The force of the stroke
knocked the key clatteringly to the floor.

Stepping back. Brice flung a second and better aimed handful
of the dwindling fire in front of the re-coiling reptile. It
drew back hissing. And as it did so. Gavin regained the
fallen key.

Wheeling about choking and strangling from the smoke, his
streamingly smarting eyes barely able to discern the fiery
trail he had laid. Brice ran through the midst of the red
line of embers to the door. Reaching it he held the key in
one hand while the sensitive fingers of the other sought the
keyhole.

After what seemed a century he found it, and applied and
turned the key in the stiff lock. With a fierce shove he
pushed open the door. Then as he was about to bound forth
into the glory of the sunset, he started back convulsively.

One moccasin had evidently sought outer air. With this in
view it had stretched itself along the crack of light at the
foot of the door. Now as the door flew wide the snake coiled
itself to strike at the man who had all but stepped on it.

Down whizzed the narrow strip of iron Gavin had wrenched from
the box as a possible weapon. And, though the impact cut
Brice's fingers afresh, the snake lay twisting wildly and
harmlessly with a cloven spine.

Over the writhing body sprang Gavin Brice and out into the
sandy open, filling his smoke-tortured lungs with the fresh
sunset air and blinking away the smoke-damp from his stinging
eyes.

It was then he beheld running toward him three men. Far in
the van was Roke - his attention no doubt having been caught by
the smoke pouring through the ventilator. The two others were
an undersized conch and a towering Bahama negro. All three
carried clubs, and a pistol glittered in Roke's left hand.

Ten feet from the reeling Gavin. Roke opened fire. But, as he
did not halt when he pulled trigger, his shot went wild. Before
he could shoot again or bring his club into action. Brice was
upon him. Gavin smote once and once only with the willowy metal
strip. But he struck with all the dazzling speed of a trained
saber fencer.

The iron strip caught Roke across the eyes, smartingly and
with a force which blinded him for the moment and sent him
staggering back in keen pain. The iron strip doubled
uselessly under the might of the blow, and Gavin dropped it
and ran.

At top speed he set off toward the dock. The conch and the
negro were between him and the pier, and from various
directions other men were running. But only the Bahaman and
the little conch barred his actual line of progress. Both
leaped at him at the same time, as he came dashing down on
them.

The conch was a yard or so in front of the negro. And now the
fugitive saw the Bahaman's supposed cudgel was an iron crowbar
which he wielded as easily as a wand. The negro leaped and at
the same time struck. But, by some queer chance, the conch, a
yard ahead of him, lost his own footing in the shifty sand
just then and tumbled headlong.

He fell directly in the Bahaman's path. The negro stumbled
over him and plunged earthward, the iron bar flying harmless
from his grasp.

"Good little Davy!" apostrophized Brice, as he hurdled the
sprawling bodies and made for the dock.

The way was clear, and he ran at a pace which would not have
disgraced a college sprinter. Once, glancing back over his
shoulder, he saw the Bahaman trying blasphemously to
disentangle his legs from those of the prostrate and wriggling
Davy. He saw, too, Roke pawing at his cut face with both
hairy hands, and heard him bellowing confused orders which
nobody seemed to understand.

Arrived at the dock Gavin saw that Standish's launch was gone.
So, too, was the gaudy little motorboat wherein Rodney Hade
had come to the key. Two battered and paintless motor-scows
remained, and one or two disreputable rowboats.

It was the work of only a few seconds for Brice to cut loose
the moorings of all these craft and to thrust them far out
into the blue water, where wind and tide could be trusted to
bear them steadily farther and farther from shore.

Into the last of the boats - the speedier-seeming of the two
launches - Gavin sprang as he shoved it free from the float.
And, before the nearest of the island men could reach shore,
he had the motor purring. Satisfied that the tide had
caught the rest of the fleet and that the stiff tradewind was
doing even more to send the derelict boats out of reach from
shore or from possible swimmers he turned the head of his
unwieldy launch toward the mainland, pointing it northeastward
and making ready to wind his course through the straits which
laced the various islets lying between him and his destination.

"They'll have a sweet time getting off that key tonight," he
mused in grim satisfaction. "And, unless they can hail some
passing boat, they're due to stay there till Hade or Standish
makes another trip out .... Standish!"

At the name he went hot with wrath. Now that he had achieved
the task of winning free from his prison and from his jailors
his mind swung back to the man he had rescued and who had
sought his death. Anger at the black infamy burned fiercely
in Brice's soul. His whole brain and body ached for redress,
for physical wild-beast punishment of the ingrate. The impulse
dulled his every other faculty. It made him oblivious to the
infinitely more important work he had laid out for himself.

No man can be forever normal when anger takes the reins. And,
for the time, Gavin Brice was deaf and blind to every motive
or caution, and centered his entire faculties on the yearning
to punish Milo Standish. He had fought like a tiger and had
risked his own life to save Standish from the unknown
assailant's knife thrust. Milo, in gross stupidity, had
struck him senseless. And now, coldbloodedly, he had helped
to plan for him the most terrible form of death by torture to
which even an Apache could have stooped. Small wonder that
righteous indignation flared high within the fugitive!

Straight into the fading glory of the sunset. Brice was
steering his wallowing and leaky launch. The boat was
evidently constructed and used for the transporting of fruit
from the key to the mainland. She was slow and of deep
draught. But she was cutting down the distance now between
Gavin and the shore.

He planned to beach her on the strip of sand at the bottom of
the mangrove swamp, and to make his way to the Standish house
through the hidden path whose existence Milo had that day
poohpoohed. He trusted to luck and to justice to enable him
to find the man he sought when once he should reach the house.

His only drawback was the fear lest he encounter Claire as
well. In his present wrathful frame of mind he had no wish to
see or speak with her, and he hoped that she might not mar by
her presence his encounter with her brother.

Between two keys wallowed his chugging boat and into a stretch
of clear water beyond. Then, skirting a low-lying reef, Gavin
headed direct toward the distant patch of yellowish beach
which was his objective.

The sun's upper edge was sinking below the flat skyline.
Mauve shadows swept over the aquamarine expanse of rippling
water. The horizon was dyed a blood-red which was merging into
ashes of roses. On golden Mashta played the last level rays of
the dying sun, caressing the wondrous edifice as though they
loved it. The subtropical night was rushing down upon the
smiling world, and, as ever, it was descending without the long
sweet interval of twilight that northern lands know.

Gavin put the tub to top speed as the last visible obstacle
was left behind. Clear water lay between him and the beach.
And he was impatient to step on land. Under the fresh impetus
the rolling craft panted and wheezed and made her way through
the ripples at a really creditable pace.

As the shadows thickened Brice half-arose in his seat to get a
better glimpse of a little motorboat which had just sprung
into view from around the mangrove-covered headland that cut
off the view of Standish's mainland dock. The boat apparently
had put off from that pier, and was making rapid speed out
into the bay almost directly toward him. He could descry a
figure sitting in the steersman's seat. But by that ebbing
light, he could discern only its blurred outline.

Before Gavin could resume his seat he was flung forward upon
his face in the bottom of his scow. The jar of the tumble
knocked him breathless. And as he scrambled up on hands and
knees he saw what had happened.

Foolish is the boatman who runs at full speed in some of
the southwestern reaches of Biscayne Bay - especially at
dusk - without up-to-date chart or a perfect knowledge of the bay's
tricky soundings. For the coral worm is tireless, and the making
of new reefs is without end.

The fast-driven launch had run, bow-on, into a tooth of coral
barely ten inches under the surface of the smooth water. And,
what with her impetus and the half-rotted condition of her
hull, she struck with such force as to rip a hole in her
forward quarter, wide enough to stick a derby hat through.


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Online LibraryAlbert Payson TerhuneBlack Caesar's Clan : a Florida Mystery Story → online text (page 8 of 15)