Albert Payson Terhune.

Black Caesar's Clan : a Florida Mystery Story online

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from widely shallow green eyes, sat Simon Cameron, the big
Persian cat.

"That's a Persian all over. Simon my friend," said Brice,
stooping down to scratch the cat's furry head in greeting. "A
Persian will sit for hours in front of any door that's got a
stranger behind it. And he'll show more flattering affection
for a stranger than for any one he's known all his life.
Isn't that true. Simon?"

By way of response, the big cat rubbed himself luxuriously
against the man's shins, purring loudly. Then, at a single
lithe spring he was on Gavin's shoulder, making queer little
whistling noises and rubbing his head lovingly against Brice's
cheek. Gavin made his way downstairs the cat still clinging
to his shoulder, fanning his face with a swishing gray foxlike
tail, digging curved claws back and forth into the cloth of
his shabby coat, and purring like a distant railroad train.

Only when they reached the lower hallway did the cat jump from
his shoulder and with a flying leap land on the top of a
nearby bookcase. There, luxuriously,
Simon Cameron stretched himself out in a shaft of sunlight,
and prepared for a nap.

Brice went on to the veranda. On the lawn, scarce fifty feet
away, Claire was gathering flowers for the breakfast table.
Very sweet and dainty was she in the flood of morning
sunshine, her white dress and her burnished hair giving back
waves of radiance from the sun's strong beams.

At her side walked Bobby Burns. But, on first sound of
Brice's step on the porch, the collie looked up and saw him.
With a joyous bark of welcome Bobby came dashing across the
lawn and up the steps. Leaping and gamboling around Gavin.
he set the echoes ringing with a series of trumpet-barks. The
man paused to pet his adorer and to say a word of
friendliness, then ran down the steps toward Claire who was
advancing to meet him. Her arms were full of scarlet and
golden blossoms.

"Are you better?" she called, noting the bandage on his head
had been replaced by a neat strip of plaster. "I hoped you'd
sleep longer. Bobby Burns ran up to your room and scratched
at the door as soon as I let him into the house this morning.
But I made him come away again. Are - "

"He left a worthy substitute welcoming-committee there, in
the shape of Simon Cameron," said Gavin. "Simon was
overwhelmingly cordial to me, for a Persian .... I'm all right
again, thanks," he added. "I had a grand night's rest. It
was fine to sleep in a real bed again. I hope I'm not late
for breakfast?"

A shade of embarrassment flitted over her eyes, and she made

"My brother had to go into Miami on - on business. So he had
breakfast early. He'll hardly be back before noon he says.
So you and I will have to breakfast without him. I hope you
don't mind?"

As there seemed no adequate reply to this useless question.
the man contented himself with following her wordlessly into
the cool house. She seemed to bring light and youth and
happiness indoors with her, and the armful of flowers she
carried filled the dim hallway with perfume.

Breakfast was a simple meal and soon eaten. Brice brought to
it only a moderate appetite, and was annoyed to find his
thoughts centering themselves about the slender white-clad
girl across the table from him, rather than upon his food or
even upon his plan of campaign. He replied in monosyllables
to her pleasant table-talk, and when his eye chanced to meet
hers he had an odd feeling of guilt.

She was so pretty, so little, so young, so adorably friendly
and innocent in her every look and word! Something very like
a heartache began to manifest itself in Gavin Brice's
supposedly immune breast. And this annoyed him more than
ever. He told himself solemnly that this girl was none of the
wonderful things she seemed to be, and that he was an idiot
for feeling as he did.

To shake free from his unwonted reverie he asked abruptly, as
the meal ended:

"Would you mind telling me why you drew a revolver on me last
evening? You don't seem the kind of girl to adopt Wild West
tactics and to carry a pistol around with you here in peaceful
Florida. I don't want to seem inquisitive, of course, but?"

"And I don't want to seem secretive," she replied, nervously.
"All I can tell you is that my brother has - has enemies (as
you know from the attack on him) and that he doesn't think it
is safe for me to go around the grounds alone, late in the
day, unarmed. So he gave me that old pistol of his, and asked
me to carry it. That was why he sent North for Bobby Burns - as
a guard for me and for the place here. When I saw you
appearing out of the swamp I - I took you for some one else.
I'm sorry."

"I'm not," he made answer. "I - "

"You must have a charming idea of our hospitality," she went
on with a nervous little laugh. "First I threaten to shoot
you. Then my brother stuns you. And both times when you are
doing us a service."

"Please!" he laughed. "And if it comes to that, what must
you people think of a down-at-heel Yankee who descends on you
and cadges for a job after he's been told there's no work here
for him?"

"Oh, but there is!" she insisted. "Milo told me so, this
morning. And you're to stay here till he comes back and can
talk things over with you. Would you care to walk around the
farm and the groves with me? Or would the sun be bad for your

"It would be just the thing my head needs most," he declared.
"Besides, I've heard so much of these wonderful Florida farms.
I'm mighty anxious to inspect one of them. We can start
whenever you're ready."

Ten minutes later they had left the lawn behind them, and had
passed through the hedge into the first of the chain of citrus
groves. In front of them stretched some fifteen acres of
grapefruit trees.

"This is the worst soil we have," lectured Claire, evidently
keenly interested in the theme of agriculture and glad of an
attentive listener. "It is more coral rock than anything
else. That is why Milo planted it in grapefruit. Grapefruit
will grow where almost nothing else will, you know. Why, last
year wasn't by any means a banner season. But he made $16,000
in gross profits off this one grapefruit orchard alone. Of
course that was gross and not net. But it - "

"Is there so much difference between the two?" he asked
innocently. "Down here, I mean. Up North, we have an idea
that all you Floridians need do is to stick a switch into the
rich soil, and let it grow. We picture you as loafing around
in dreamy idleness till it's time to gather your fruit and to
sell it at egregious prices to us poor Northerners."

"It's a lovely picture," she retorted. "And it's exactly
upside down, like most Northern ideas of Florida. When it
comes to picking the fruit and shipping it North - that's the
one time we can loaf. For we don't pick it or ship it.
That's done for us on contract. It's our lazy time. But
every other step is a fight. For instance, there's the woolly
white fly and there's the rust mite and there's the purple
scale, and there are a million other pests just as bad. And
we have to battle with them, all the time. And when we spray
with the pumping engine, the sand is certain to get into the
engine and ruin it. And when we - "

"I had no notion that - "

"No Northerners have," she said, warming to her theme. "I
wish I could set some of them to scrubbing orange-trunks with
soap-and-water and spraying acre after acre, as we do, in a wild
race to keep up with the pests, knowing all the time that some
careless grove owner next door may let the rust mite or the
black fly get the better of his grove and let it drift over
into ours. Then there's always the chance that a grove may
get so infected that the government will order it destroyed, - wiped
out .... I've been talking just about the citrus fruits,
the grapefruit and the tangeloes and oranges and all that.
Pretty much the same thing applies to all our crops down here.
We've as many blights and pests and weather-troubles as you have
in the North. And now and then, even in Dade County, we get a
frost that does more damage than a forest fire."

As she talked they passed out of the grapefruit grove, and
came to a plantation of orange trees.

"These are the joy of Milo's heart," she said with real pride,
waving her little hand toward the well-ranked lines of
blossoming and bearing young trees. "Last year he cleared up
from this five-acre plot alone more than - "

"Excuse me," put in Gavin. "I don't mean to be rude. But
since he's made such a fine grove of it and takes such pride
in its looks, why doesn't he send a man or two out here with
a hoe, and get rid of that tangle of weeds? It covers the
ground of the whole grove, and it grows rankly under every
tree. If you'll pardon me for saying so, it gives the place
an awfully unkempt look. If - "

Her gay laugh broke in on his somewhat hesitant criticism.

"Say that to any Floridian," she mocked, "and he'll save you
the trouble of looking for work by getting you admitted to the
nearest asylum. Why Milo fosters those weeds and fertilizes
them and even warns the men not to trample them in walking
here. If you should begin your work for Milo by hoeing out
any of these weeds he'd have to buy weed-seeds and sow them
all over again. He - "

"Then there's a market for this sort of stuff?" he asked,
stooping to inspect with interest a spray of smelly ragweed.
"I didn't know - "

"No," she corrected. "But the market for our oranges would
slump without them. Here in the subtropics the big problem is
water for moistening the soil. Very few of us irrigate. We
have plenty of water as a rule. But we also have more than a
plenty of sun. The sun sucks up the water and leaves the soil
parched. In a grove like this the roots of the orange trees
would suffer from it. These weeds shelter the roots from the
sun, and they help keep the moisture in the ground. They are
worth everything to us. Of course, in some of the fields we
mulch to keep the ground damp. Milo bought a whole carload of
Australian pine needles, last month at Miami. They make a
splendid mulch. Wild hay is good, too. So is straw. But
the pine needles are cheapest and easiest to get. The rain
soaks down through them into the ground. And they keep the
sun from drawing it back again. Besides, they keep down weeds
in fields where we don't want weeds. See!" she ended,
pointing to a new grove they were approaching.

Gavin noted that here the orange tree rows were alternated
with rows of strawberry plants.

"That was an idea of Milo's, too," she explained. "It's
'intercrop' farming. And he's done splendidly with it so far.
He thinks the eel-worm doesn't get at the berry plants as
readily here as in the open, but he's not sure of that yet.
He's had to plant cowpeas on one plot to get rid of it."

"The experiment of intercropping orange trees with
strawberries isn't new," said Brice thoughtlessly. "When the
plants are as thick as he's got them here, it's liable to
harm the trees in the course of time. Two rows, at most, are
all you ought to plant between the tree-ranks. And that mulch
over there is a regular Happy Home for crickets. If Standish
isn't careful - "

The girl was staring up at him in astonishment. And Gavin was
aware for the first time that he had been thinking aloud.

"You see," he expounded, smiling vaingloriously down at her.
"I amused myself at the Miami library Saturday by browsing
over a sheaf of Government plant reports. And those two solid
facts stuck in my memory. Now, won't I be an invaluable aide
to your brother if I can remember everything else as easily?"

Still puzzled she continued to look up at him.

"It's queer that a man who has just come down here should
remember such a technical thing," said she. "And yesterday
you warned me against letting Bobby Burns wander in the
palmetto scrub, for fear of rattlesnakes. I - "

"That deep mystery is also easy to solve," he said. "In the
smoker on the way South several men were telling how they had
lost valuable hunting dogs, hereabouts from rattlesnakes. I
like Bobby Burns. So I passed along the warning. What are
those queer trees?" he asked shifting the dangerous subject.
"I mean the ones that look like a mixture of horse-chestnut
and - "

"Avocadoes," she answered, interest in the task of farm guide
making her forget her momentary bewilderment at his scraps of
local knowledge. "They're one of our best crops. Sometimes a
single avocado will sell in open market here for as much as
forty cents. There's money in them, nearly always. Good
money. And the spoiled ones are great for the pigs. Then the
Northern market for them - "

"Avocadoes?" he repeated curiously. "There! Now you see how
much I know about Florida. From this distance, their fruits
look to me exactly like alligator pears or - "

Again, her laugh interrupted him.

"If only you'd happened to look in one or two more government
reports at the library," she teased, "you'd
know that an avocado and an alligator pear are the same

"Anyhow," he boasted, picking up a gold-red fruit at the edge
of a smaller grove they were passing, "anyhow, I know what
this is, without being told. I've seen them a hundred times
in the New York markets. This is a tangerine."

"In that statement," she made judicial reply, "you've made
only two mistakes. You're improving. In the first place,
that isn't a tangerine, though it looks like one - or would if
it were half as large. That's a king orange. In the second
place, you've hardly ever seen them in any New York market.
They don't transport as well as some other varieties. And
very few of them go North. Northerners don't know them. And
they miss a lot. For the king is the most delicious orange in
the world. And it's the trickiest and hardest for us to
raise. See, the skin comes off it as easily as off of a
tangerine, and it breaks apart in the same way. The rust mite
has gotten at this one. See that russet patch on one side of
it? You'll often see it on oranges that go North. Sometimes
they're russet all over. That means the rust mite has dried
the oil in the skin and made the skin thinner and more
brittle. It doesn't seem to injure the taste. But it - "

"There's a grand tree over toward the road," he said, his
attention wandering. "It must be nearly a century old. It
has the most magnificent sweep of foliage I've seen since I
left the North. What is it?"

"That?" she queried. "Oh, that's another of Milo's prides.
It's an Egyptian fig. 'Ficus Something or
other.' Isn't it beautiful? But it isn't a century old. It
isn't more than fifteen years old. It grows tremendously
fast. Milo has been trying to interest the authorities in
Miami in planting lines of them for shade trees and having
them in the city parks. There's nothing more beautiful. And
nothing, except the Australian pine, grows faster.... There's
another of Milo's delights," she continued, pointing to the
left. "It's ever so old. The natives around here call it 'The
Ghost Tree.'"

They had been moving in a wide circle through the groves.
Now, approaching the house from the other side, they came out
on a grassy little space on the far edge of the lawn. In the
center of the space stood a giant live-oak towering as high as
a royal palm, and with mighty boughs stretching out in vast
symmetry on every side. It was a true forest monarch. And
like many another monarch, it was only a ghost of its earlier

For from every outflung limb and from every tiniest twig hung
plumes and festoons and stalactites of gray moss. For perhaps
a hundred years the moss had been growing thus on the giant
oak, first in little bunches and trailers that were scarce
noticeable and which affected the forest monarch's appearance
and health not at all.

Then year by year the moss had grown and had taken toll of the
bark and sap. At last it had killed the tree on which it fed.
And its own source of life being withdrawn itself had died.

So, now the gaunt tree with its symmetrical spread of branches
stood lifeless. And its tons of low-hanging festooned moss
was as void of life as was the tree they had killed.
Tinder-dry it hung there, a beauteous, tragic, spectacle,
towering high above the surrounding flatness of landscape,
visible for miles by land and by sea.

Fifty yards beyond a high interlaced hedge of vines bordered
the clearing. Toward this Gavin bent his idle steps,
wondering vaguely how such a lofty and impenetrable wall of
vine was supported from the far side.

Claire had stopped to call off Bobby Burns who had discovered
a highly dramatic toad-hole on the edge of the lawn and who
was digging enthusiastically at it with both flying fore-feet,
casting up a cloud of dirt and cutting into the sward's neat
border. Thus she was not aware of Brice's diversion.

Gavin approached the twenty-foot high vine-wall, and thrust
his hand in through the thick tangle of leaves. His sensitive
fingers touched the surface of a paling. Running his hand
along, he found that the entire vine palisade was,
apparently, backed by a twenty-foot stockade of solid boards.
If there were a gate, it was hidden from view. It was then
that Claire, looking up from luring Bobby Burns away from the
toad-hole, saw whither Gavin had strayed.

"Oh," she called, hurrying toward him. "That's the enclosure
Milo made years ago for his experiments in evolving the
'perfect orange' he is so daft about. He's always afraid some
other grower may take advantage of his experiments. So he
keeps that little grove walled in. He's never even let me go
in there. So - "

A deafening salvo of barks from Bobby Burns broke in on her
recital. The collie had caught sight of Simon Cameron mincing
along the lawn, and he gave rapturous and rackety chase.
Claire ran after them crying out to the dog to desist. And
Gavin took advantage of the brief instant when her back was
turned to him.

His fingers in slipping along the wall had encountered a
rotting spot at the juncture of two palings. Pushing sharply
against this he forced a fragment of the decayed wood inward.
Then, quickly, he shoved aside the tangle of vines and applied
one eye to the tiny aperture.

"A secret orange-grove, eh?" he gasped, under his breath.
"Good Lord! Was she lying to me or did she actually believe
him when he lied to her?"



To south and to southeast, the green-blue transparent sea.
Within sight of the land, the purple-blue Gulf Stream, - a
mystic warm river a half mile deep, thousands of miles long,
traveling ever at a speed of eighty miles a day through the
depth of the ocean, as distinct and as unswerving from its
chosen course as though it flowed through land instead of
through shifting water.

Studded in the milk-tepid nearer waters, innumerable coral
islets and keys and ridges. Then the coral-built tongue of
land running north without so much as a respectably large
hillock to break its flatness. Along the coast the tawny
beaches, the mangrove-swamps, the rich farms, the groves, the
towns, the villages, the estates, snow-white Miami, the
nation's southernmost big city.

Back of this foreshore, countless miles of waving grass,
rooted in water, and with a stray clump of low trees, dotted
here and there, the Everglades, a vast marsh that runs north
to the inland sea known as Lake Okeechobee. Then the solid
sandy ground of the main State.

Along the foreshore, and running inland, miles of sand-barren
scattered with gaunt pines and floored with harsh
palmetto-scrub. Strewn here and there through this sandy
expanse lovely oases, locally known as "hammocks", usually in
hollows, and consisting of several acres of rich soil where
tropic and sub-tropic trees grow as luxuriantly as in a
jungle, where undergrowth and vine run riot, where orchid and
airplant and wondrous-hued flowers blaze through the green
gloom of interlaced foliage.

This, roughly, is a bird's-eye glimpse of the southeastern
stretch of Florida, a region of glory and glow and fortunes
and mystery. (Which is perhaps a momentary digression from
our story, but will serve, for all that to fix its setting
more vividly in the eyes of the mind.)

When Milo Standish came back from Miami that noon he professed
much loud-voiced joy at seeing his guest so well recovered
from the night's mishaps. At lunch, he suggested:

"I am running across to Roustabout Key this afternoon, in the
launch. It's an island I bought a few years ago. I keep a
handful of men there to work a grapefruit grove and a mango
orchard and some other stuff I've planted. I go over to it
every week or so. Would you care to come along?"

He spoke with elaborate carelessness, and looked anywhere
except at his guest. Gavin, not appearing to note the
concealed nervousness of his host's voice and manner, gave
eager consent. And at two o'clock they set forth.

They drove in Milo's car a half-mile or more to southwestward
along the road which fronted the house. Then turning into a
sand byway which ran crookedly at right angles to it and which
skirted the southern end of the mangrove-swamp, they headed
for the sea. Another half-mile brought them to a
handkerchief-sized beach, much like that on the other side of
the swamp, where Gavin had found the hidden path. Here, on
mangrove-wood piles, was a short pier with a boathouse at its
far end.

"I keep my launch and my fishing-boats in there," explained
Milo, as he climbed out of the car. "If it wasn't for that
pesky swamp. I could have had this pier directly back of my
house, and saved a lot of distance."

"Why not cut a road through the swamp?" suggested Brice,
following him along the pier.

Again Standish gave vent to that great laugh of his - a laugh
outwardly jovial, but as hollow as a shell.

"Young man," said he, "if ever you try to cut your way
through an East Coast mangrove-swamp you'll find out just how
silly that question is. A swamp like that might as well be a
quick-sand, for all the chance a mortal has of traveling
through it."

Gavin made no reply. Again, he was visualizing the cleverly
engineered path from the beach-edge to Milo's lawn. And he
recalled Claire's unspoken plea that he say nothing to
Standish about his chance discovery of it. He remembered,
too, the night-song of the mocking bird from the direction of
that path, and the advent of Rodney Hade from it.

Milo had unlocked the boat-house, and was at work over a
fifteen-foot steel motorboat which was slung on chains above
the water. A winch and well-constructed pulleys-and-chains
made simple the labor of launching it in so quiet a sea.

Out they fared into the gleaming sunlit waters of the bay.
Far to eastward gleamed the white city of Miami, and nearer,
across the bay from it the emerald stretch of key with Cape
Florida and the old Spanish Light on its southern point and
the exquisite "golden house" of Mashta shining midway down its
shoreline. Miles to eastward gleamed the gray viaduct, the
grain elevator outlines of the Flamingo rising yellow above a
fire-blue sea.

"I used to hear great stories about this region years ago,"
volunteered Brice as the launch danced over the transparent
water past Ragged Keys and bore southward. "I heard them from
a chap who used to winter hereabouts. It was he who first
interested me in Florida. He says these keys and inlets and
changing channels used to be the haunts of Spanish Main

"They were," said Milo. "The pirates knew these waters. The
average merchant skipper didn't. They'd build signal flares
on the keys to lure ships onto the rocks, and then loot them.
At least that was the everyday (or everynight) amusement of
their less venturesome members and their women and children.
The more adventurous used to overhaul vessels skirting the
coast to and from Cuba and Central America. They'd sally out
from their hiding-places among the keys and lie in wait for
the merchant-ships. If the prey was weak enough they'd board
and ransack her and make her crew walk the plank, - (that's how
Aaron Burr's beautiful daughter is supposed to have died on
her way North, you know,) - and if the ship showed fight or
seemed too tough a handful the pirates hit on a surer way of
capture. They'd turn tail and run. The merchant ship would
give chase, for there were fat rewards out for the capture of
the sea rovers, you know. The pirates would head for some
strip of water that seemed perfectly navigable. The ship

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Online LibraryAlbert Payson TerhuneBlack Caesar's Clan : a Florida Mystery Story → online text (page 6 of 15)