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´╗┐Title: Black Caesar's Clan : A Florida Mystery Story
Author: Terhune, Albert Payson, 1872-1942
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Black Caesar's Clan : A Florida Mystery Story" ***

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Black Caesar's Clan


by

Albert Payson Terhune



  THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED, MOST GRATEFULLY
  TO MY FRIEND
  JOHN E. PICKETT
  EDITOR OF
  "THE COUNTRY GENTLEMAN"



CONTENTS

     I  THE HIDDEN PATH
    II  THE MAN IN THE DARK
   III  THE MOCKING BIRD
    IV  THE STRANGER FROM NOWHERE
     V  TRAPS AND TRAPPER
    VI  IN THE DAY OF BATTLE
   VII  SECRETS
  VIII  THE SIEGE
    IX  THE FIGURE IN WHITE
     X  THE GHOST TREE



FOREWORD


A wiggling, brainless, slimy atom began it.  He and trillions
of his kind.  He was the Coral Worm ("Anthozoa," if you prefer).

He and his tribe lived and died on the sea-bottom, successive
generations piling higher on the skeletons and lifework--or
the life-loafing, for they were lazy atoms--of those that went
before.  At last the coral reef crawled upward until in
uncharted waters it was tall enough to smash a wooden
ship-keel.

Then, above the surface of the waves it nosed its way, grayish
white, whalebacked.  From a hundred miles distant floated a
cigar-shaped mangrove-bud, bobbing vertically, through the
ocean, until it chanced to touch the new-risen coral reef.
The mangrove, alone of all trees, will sprout and grow in salt
water.  The mangrove's trunk, alone of all trunks, is
impervious to the corrosive action of the sea.

At once the bud set to work.  It drove an anchor-root into the
reef, then other roots and still others.  It shot up to the
height of a foot or two, and thence sent thick red-brown roots
straight downward into the coral again.

And so on, until it had formed a tangled root-fence for many
yards alongshore.  After which, its work being done, the
mangrove proceeded to grow upward into a big and glossy-leaved
shade-tree, making buds for further fences.

Meanwhile, every particle of floating seaweed, every dead fish
or animal, all vegetation, etc., which chanced to wash into
that fence-tangle, stayed there.  It is easier for matter, as
well as for man, to get entangled in mangrove roots than to
get out again.

The sun and the rain did their work on this decaying stuff.
Thus, soil was formed, atop the coral and in the hollows
scooped out of its surface by wind or tide.

Presently, a coconut, hurled from its stem in the Bahamas or
in Cuba, by a hurricane, set its palmleaf sail-sprout and was
gale-driven across the intervening seas, floating ashore on
the new-risen land.  There it sprouted.  Birds, winds, waves,
brought germs of other trees.  The subtropical island was
complete.

Island, key, reef--reef, key, island--with the intervening
gaps of azure-emerald water, bridged, bit by bit, by the
coral,--to-day a sea-surface, to-morrow a gray-white reef,
next day a mangrove hedge, and the next an expanse of
spectacular verdure and glistening gray-white sand.

So Florida was born.

So, at least, its southern portion was born, and is still in
daily process of birth.  And, according to Agassiz and many
another, the entire Peninsula may have arisen in this fashion,
from the green-blue sea.

Dredge and shovel are laboring hard to guide or check the
endless undersea coral growth before bay and channel and
lagoon shall all be dry land.  The wormlike, lazy,
fast-multiplying Anthozoa is fighting passively but with
terrific power, to set at naught all man's might and wit.

In time, coral sand-spit and mangrove swamp were cleared for a
wonderland playground, of divine climate whither winter
tourists throng by the hundred thousand.  In time, too, these
sand-spits and swamps and older formations of the sunny
peninsula furnished homes and sources of livelihood or of
wealth to many thousands more, people, these, to whom Florida
is a Career, not a Resort.

As in every land which has grown swiftly and along different
lines from the rest of the country, there still are mystery
and romance and thrills to be found lurking among the keys and
back of the mangrove-swamps and along the mystic reaches of
sunset shoreline.

With awkward and inexpert touch, my story seeks to set forth
some of these.

Understand, please, that this book is rank melodrama.  It has
scant literary quality.  It is not planned to edify.  Its only
mission is to entertain you and,--if you belong to the
action-loving majority, to give you an occasional thrill.

Perhaps you will like it.  Perhaps you will not.  But I do not
think you will go to sleep over it.  There are worse
recommendations than that for any book.

                    ALBERT PAYSON TERHUNE.

"Sunnybank,"
  Pompton Lakes,
    New Jersey.



BLACK CAESAR'S CLAN



CHAPTER I

THE HIDDEN PATH


Overhead sang the steady trade wind, tempering the golden
sunshine's heat.  To eastward, under an incredibly blue sky,
stretched the more incredibly multi-hued waters of Biscayne
Bay, the snow-white wonder-city of Miami dreaming on its
shores.

Dividing the residence and business part of the city from the
giant hotels, Flagler Avenue split the mass of buildings, from
back-country to bay.  To its westward side spread the shaded
expanse of Royal Palm Park, with its deep-shaded short lane of
Australian pines, its rustling palm trees, its white church
and its frond-flecked vistas of grass.

Here, scarce a quarter-century ago, a sandspit had broiled
beneath an untempered sun.  Shadeless, grassless, it had been
an abomination of desolution and a rallying-place for
mosquitoes.  Then had come the hand of man.  First, the Royal
Palm Hotel had sprung into stately existence, out of
nothingness.  Then other caravansaries.  Palm and pine and
vivid lawn-grass had followed.  The mosquitoes had fled far
back to the mangrove swamps.  And a rarely beautiful White
City had sprung up.

It was Sunday morning.  From the park's bandstand, William J.
Bryan was preaching to his open-air Sunday School class of
tourists, two thousand strong.  Around the bandstand the
audience stood or sat in rapt interest.

The Australian-pine lane, to the rear, was lined with all
manner of automobiles, from limousine to battered flivver.
The cars' occupants listened as best they could--through
the whirr of sea-planes and the soft hum of Sabbath traffic
and the dry slither of a myriad grating palm-fronds in the
trade-wind's wake--to the preacher's words.

The space of shaded grass, between lane and hotel-grounds and
bandstand, was starred by white-clad children, and by men who
sprawled drowsily upon the springy turf, their straw hats
tilted above their eyes.  The time was mid-February.  The
thermometers on the Royal Palm veranda registered
seventy-three.  No rain had fallen in weeks to mar the
weather's perfection.

"Scientists are spending $5,000,000 to send an expedition into
Africa in search of the 'missing-link'!" the orator was
thundering.  "It would be better for them to spend all or part
of that money, in seeking closer connection with their
Heavenly Father, than with the Brutes!"

A buzz of approval swept the listeners.  That same buzz came
irritatingly to the ears of a none-too-sprucely dressed young
man who lay, with eyes shut, under the shifting shade of a
giant palm, a hundred yards away.  He had not caught the
phrase which inspired the applause--thanks to the confusion of
street sounds and the multiple dry rattle of the palm-fronds
and the whirring passage of a sea-plane which circled above
park and bay.  But the buzz aroused him.

He had not been asleep.  Prone on his back, hat pulled over
his upper face, he had been lying motionless there, for the
best part of an hour.  Now, stretching, he got to his feet in
leisurely fashion, brushed perfunctorily at his rumpled
clothes, and turned his steps toward the double line of plumy
Australian pines which bordered the lane between hotel grounds
and avenue.

Only once did he hesitate in his slouching progress.  That was
when he chanced to come alongside one of the cars, in the long
rank, drawn up in the shade.  The machine's front seat was
occupied by a giant of a man, all in white silk, a man of
middle age, blonde and bearded, a man who, but for his modern
costume, might well have posed as a Norse Viking.

The splendid breadth of shoulder and depth of chest caught the
wanderer's glance and won his grudging approval.  Thence, his
elaborately careless gaze shifted to the car's rear seat where
sat a girl.  He noted she was small and dainty and tanned and
dressed in white sport-clothes.  Also, that one of her arms
was passed around the shoulder of a big young gold-and-white
collie dog,--a dog that fidgeted uneasily and paid scant heed
to the restraining hand and caressing voice of his mistress.

As the shabby man paused momentarily to scan the car's three
occupants, the girl happened to look toward him.  Her look was
brief and impersonal.  Yet, for the merest instant, her eyes
met his.  And their glances held each other with a momentary
intentness.  Then the girl turned again toward the restless
dog, seeking to quiet him.  And the man passed on.

Moving with aimless slowness--one is not long in Southern
Florida without acquiring a leisurely gait the lounger left
the park and strolled up Thirteenth Avenue, towards the bridge
which spans the Miami River and forms a link between the more
thickly settled part of the town and its southerly suburbs.

As he crossed the bridge, a car passed him, moving rapidly
eastward, and leaving a choky trail of dust.  He had bare time
to see it was driven by the Norse giant, and that the girl had
moved to the front seat beside the driver.  The collie
(fastened by a cord running through his collar from one side
of the tonneau to the other) lay fidgetingly on the rear seat.

For miles the man plodded on, under the wind-tempered
sunshine.  Passing Brickell Avenue and then the last of the
city, he continued,--now on the road, now going
cross-country,--until he came out on a patch of broken beach,
with a background of jungle-like forest.

The sun had gone beyond the meridian mark during his ramble
southward, and the afternoon was hurrying by.  For the way was
long, though he had tramped steadily.

As he reached the bit of sandy foreshore, he paused for the
first time since stopping to survey the car.  An unpainted
rowboat was drawn up on the beach.  Half way between it and
the tangle of woodland behind, was a man clad only in
undershirt and dirty duck trousers.  He was yanking along by
the scruff of the neck a protesting and evidently angry
collie.

The man was big and rugged.  Weather and sea had bronzed him
to the hue of an Arab.  Apparently, he had sighted the dog,
and had run his boat ashore to capture the stray animal.  He
handled his prize none too gently, and his management was
calling forth all the collie's resentment.  But as the man had
had the wit to seize the dog by the scruff of the neck and to
keep himself out of the reach of the luckless creature's
vainly snapping jaws, these protests went for nothing.

Within thirty feet of the boat, the dog braced himself for a
new effort to tear free.  The man, in anger, planted a
vigorous kick against the collie's furry side.  As his foot
was bare, the kick lost much of its potential power to injure.
Yet it had the effect of rousing to sudden indignation the
dusty youth who had stopped on his tramp from Miami to watch
the scene.

"Whose dog is that?" he demanded, striding forward, from the
shade, and approaching the struggling pair.

"Who the blue blazes are you?" countered the barefoot man, his
eyes running contemptuously over the shabby and slight-built
figure.

"My name is Brice," said the other.  "Gavin Brice.  Not that
it matters.  And now, perhaps you'll answer my question.
Whose dog is that?"

"Mine," returned the barefoot man, renewing his effort to drag
the collie toward the boat.

"If he's yours," said Brice, pleasantly, "stop hauling him
along and let him loose.  He'll follow you, without all that
hustling.  A good collie will always follow, his master,
anywhere."

"When I'm honin' for your jabber," retorted the other, "I'll
come a-askin' for it."

He drew back his foot once more, for a kick.  But, with a lazy
competence, Brice moved forward and gave him a light push,
sidewise, on the shoulder.  There was science and a rare
knowledge of leverage in the mild gesture.  When a man is
kicking, he is on only one foot.  And, the right sort of
oblique push will not only throw him off his balance, but in
such a direction that his second foot cannot come to earth in
position to help him restore that balance.

Under the skillfully gentle impact of Brice's shove, the man
let go of the snarling collie and hopped insanely for a second
or so, with arms outflung.  Then he sat down ungracefully on
the sand.

Scarce had he touched ground when he was up.

But the moment had sufficed for the collie to go free.
Instead of running off, the dog moved over to Brice, thrust
his cool muzzle into the man's hand, and, with wagging tail,
looked up lovingly at him.

A collie has brains beyond most dogs.  And this collie
recognized that the pleasant-voiced, indolent-looking stranger
had just rescued him from a captor who had been treating him
abominably.  Wherefore, in gratitude and dawning adoration, he
came to pay his respects.

Brice patted the silken head so confidingly upraised to him.
He knew dogs.  Especially, he knew collies.  And he was hot
with indignation at the needlessly brutal treatment just
accorded this splendid beast.

But he had scant time for emotions of any kind.  The beach
comber had regained his feet, and in the same motion had lost
his self-control.  Head lowered, fists swinging, he came
charging down upon the stripling who had the audacity to upset
him.

Brice did not await his onset.  Slipping lithely to one side
he avoided the bull-rush, all the time talking in the same
pleasantly modulated drawl.

"I saw this dog, earlier in the day," said he, "in a car, with
some people.  They drove this way.  The dog must have chewed
his cord and then jumped or fallen out, and strayed here.  You
saw him, from the water, and tried to steal him.  Next to a
vivisectionist, the filthiest man God ever made is the man who
kicks a dog.  It's lucky--"

He got no further.  Twice, during his short speech, he had
had to twist, with amazing speed, out of the way of
profanity-accompanied rushes.  Now, pressed too close for
comfort, he halted, ducked a violent left swing, and ran from
under the flailing right arm of his assailant.

Then, darting back for fully twenty-five feet, he cried out,
gayly:

"I won't buy him from you.  But I'll fight you for him, if you
like."

As he spoke, he drew from his pocket a battered and
old-fashioned gold watch.  Laying it on the sand, he went on:

"How does this strike you as a sporting offer?  Winner to take
both dog and watch?  How about it?"

The other had halted in an incipient charge to take note of
the odd proposition.  He blinked at the flash of the watch's
battered gold case in the sunshine.  For the first time, he
seemed a trifle irresolute.  This eel-like antagonist, with
such eccentric ideas as to sport, was something outside the
beach-comber's experience.  Puzzled, he stood scowling.

"How about it?" queried Brice.  "I hope you'll refuse.  I'd
rather be kicked, any day, than have to fight.  But--well, I
wouldn't rather see a good dog kicked.  Still, if you're
content with what you've got, we'll call it a day.  I'll take
the dog and be moving on."

The barefoot man's bewilderment was once more merging into
wrath, at the amused superiority in Brice's words and
demeanor.  He glowered appraisingly at the intruder.  He saw
Brice was a half-head shorter than himself and at least thirty
pounds lighter.  Nor did Brice's figure betray any special
muscular development.  Apparently, there could be but one
outcome to such a battle.

The man's fists clenched, afresh.  His big muscles tightened.
Brice saw the menace and spoke again.

"It's only fair to warn you," said he, gently, "that I shall
thrash you worse than ever you've been thrashed before in all
your down-at-heel life.  When I was a boy, I saw George Siler
beat up five men who tackled him.  Siler wasn't a big man.
But he had made a life-study of leverage.  And it served him
better than if he'd toted a machine gun.  I studied under him.
And then, a bit, under a jui-jutsu man.  You'll have less
chance against me than that poor collie had against you.  I
only mention it as a friendly warning.  Best let things rest
as they are.  Come, puppy!" he chirped to the highly
interested dog.  "Let's be on our way.  Perhaps we can find
the people who lost you.  That's what I've been wanting to do,
all day, you know," he added, in a lower voice, speaking
confidentially to the dog, and beginning to stroll off toward
the woods.

But the barefoot man would not have it so.  Now, he
understood.  This sissyfied chap, with the high and-mighty
airs, was bluffing.  That was what he was doing.  Bluffing!
Did he think for a minute he could get away with it, and with
the dog?

A swirl of red fury swept to the beach comber's brain.
Wordless, face distorted, he flung himself at the elusive
Brice.

So sudden was his spring that it threatened to take its victim
unaware.  Brice's back was turned to the aggressor, and he was
already on his way toward the woods.

Yet, with but a fraction of an inch to spare, he turned to
face the oncoming human whirlwind.  This time he did not dart
back from the rush.  Perhaps he did not care to.  Perhaps
there was not time.

Instead, with the speed of light, he stepped in, ducking the
hammer-fist and plying both hands with bewildering quickness
and skill, in a shower of half-arm blows at the beach comber's
heart and wind.  His strength was wiry and carefully
developed, but it was no match for his foe's.  Yet the hail of
body-punches was delivered with all the effect that science
and a perfect knowledge of anatomy could compass.

The beach comber grunted and writhed in sharp discomfort.
Then, he did the one thing possible, by way of reprisal.
Before Brice could dodge out of his close-quarters position,
the other clasped him tight in his bulgingly powerful arms,
gripping the lighter man to his chest in a hug which had the
gruesome force of a boa-constrictor's, and increasing the
pressure with all his weight and mighty strength.


There was no space for maneuvering or for wriggling free.
Clear from the ground Brice's feet were swung.  The breath was
squeezed out of him.  His elastic strength was cramped and
made useless.  His lungs seemed bursting.  The pressure on his
ribs was unbearable.  Like many a better man he was paying the
price for a single instant of overconfidence.

One arm was caught against his side.  The other was impeded
and robbed of all efficient hitting power, being pinioned
athwart his breast.  And steadily the awful pressure was
increased.  There was no apparent limit to the beach comber's
powers of constriction.  The blood beat into Brice's eyes.
His tongue began to protrude from a swollen throat.

Then, all at once, he ceased to struggle, and lay limp and
moveless in the conqueror's grasp.  Perceiving which, the
beach comber relaxed the pressure, to let his conquered enemy
slide, broken, to the ground.

This, to his blank amaze, Gavin Brice neglected to do.  The
old ruse of apparent collapse had served its turn, for perhaps
the millionth time.  The beach-comber was aware of a
lightning-quick tensing of the slumped muscles.  Belatedly, he
knew what had happened, and he renewed his vise-grip.  But he
was too late.  Eel-like, Gavin had slithered out of the
imprisoning arms.  And, as these arms came together once more,
in the bear-hug, Brice shot over a burning left-hander to the
beach-comber's unguarded jaw.  Up flew the big arms in belated
parry, but not soon enough to block a deliberately-aimed right
swing, which Brice drove whizzing into the jaw's point.

The brace of blows rocked the giant, so that he reeled
drunkenly under their dynamic force.  The average man must
have been floored and even knocked senseless by such
well-directed smashes to so vital a spot.  But the
beach-comber merely staggered back, seeking instinctively to
guard his battered face, and to regain his balance.

In at the reeling foe tore Gavin Brice, showering him with
systematic punches to every vulnerable spot above the belt
line.  It was merciless punishment, and it was delivered with
rare deftness.

Yet, the iron-bodied man on whom it was inflicted merely
grunted again and, under the avalanche of blows, managed to
regain his balance and plunge back to the assault.  A born
fighter, he was now obsessed with but one idea, namely, to
destroy this smaller and faster opponent who was hurting him
so outrageously.  As far as the beach comber was concerned: it
was a murder-battle now, with no question of mercy asked or
given.

The collie had been viewing this astounding scene in eager
interest.  Never before, in his short life, had he seen two
humans fight.  And, even now, he was not at all certain that
it was a fight and not some intensely thrilling game.  Thus
had he watched two boys wrestle and box, in his own puppyhood.
And, for venturing to jump into that jolly fracas, he had been
scolded and sent back to his kennel.

Yet, there was something about this clash, between the giant
who had mistreated him and the softer-voiced man who had
rescued him, which spoke of mad excitement, and which stirred
the collie's own excitable temperament to the very depths.
Dancingly, he pattered around the fighters, tulip ears cocked,
deep-set eyes aglow, his fanfare of barks echoing far back
through the silent woods.

The beach comber, rallying from the dual jaw-bombardment,
bored back at his foe, taking the heaviest and most scientific
punishment, in a raging attempt to gather Brice once more into
the trap of his terrible arms.  But Gavin kept just out of
reach, moving with an almost insolent carelessness, and ever
flashing some painful blow to face or to body as he retreated.

Then, as the other charged, Gavin sidestepped with perfect
ease, and, when the beach-comber wheeled clumsily to face him,
threw one foot forward and at the same time pushed the larger
man's shoulder violently with his open palm.  It was a
repetition of the "leverage theory" Gavin had so recently been
expounding to his antagonist.  It caught the lunging giant at
precisely the right non-balance angle, as he was turning about.
And, for the second time, the beach-comber sat down on the
trampled sand, with unexpected suddenness and force.

Gavin Brice laughed aloud, with boyish mischief, and stood
back, waiting for the cursing madman to scramble to his feet
again.  But, as the beach comber leaped up--and before he
could get fairly balanced on his legs--another foot-and-palm
maneuver sent him sprawling.

This time the puffing and foaming and insanely-badgered man
did not try at once to rise.  Instead, his hand whipped back
to his thigh.

"My clumsy friend," Brice was saying, pleasantly, "I'm afraid
you'll never win that watch.  Shall we call it a day and quit?
Or--"

He broke off with an exclamation of genuine wrath.  For, with
astonishing swiftness, the big hand had flown to the hip of
the ragged trousers, had plucked a short-bladed fishing knife
from its sheath, and had hurled it, dexterously, with the
strength of a catapult, straight at his smiling adversary's
throat.

The sub-tropic beach comber and the picaroon acquire nasty
tricks with knives, and have an uncanny skill at their use.

Brice twisted to one side, with a sharp suddenness that all
but threw his back out of joint.  The knife whizzed through
the still air like a great hornet.  The breath of its passage
fanned Gavin's averted face, as he wrenched his head out of
its path.

The collie had watched the supposed gambols of the two men
with keen, but impersonal, interest.  But here at last was
something he could understand.  Instinct teaches practically
every dog the sinister nature of a thrown object.  The man on
the ground had hurled something at the man whom the collie
had begun to love.  That meant warfare.  To the canine mind
it could mean nothing else.

And, ruff a-bristle and teeth bared, the dog flew at the beach
comber.  The latter had followed his throw by leaping to his
feet.  But, as he rose, the collie was at him.  For an
instant, the furry whirlwind was snarling murderously at his
throat, and the man was beating convulsively at this
unexpected new enemy.

Then, almost before the collie could slash to the bone one of
the hairy big hands that thrust him backward, Gavin Brice had
reached the spot in a single bound, had shoved the dog to one
side and was at the man.

"Clear out, puppy!" he shouted, imperatively.  "This is my
meat!  When people get to slinging knives, there's no more
sense in handling them with gloves!"

The debonaire laziness was gone from Brice's voice and manner.
His face was dead-white.  His eyes were blazing.  His mouth
was a mere gash in the grim face.  Even as he spoke, he had
thrust the snarling collie away, and was at the beach-comber.

No longer was it a question of boxing or of half-jesting
horseplay.  The use of the knife had put this fight on a new
plane.  And, like a wild beast, Gavin Brice was attacking his
big foe.  But, unlike a wild beast, he kept his head, as he
charged.

Disregarding the menace of the huge arms, he came to grips,
without striking a single blow.  Around him the beach-comber
flung his constricting grasp.  But this time the grip was
worthless.

For, Brice's left shoulder jutted out in such manner as to
keep the arms from getting their former hold around the body
itself, and Brice's right elbow held off the grip on the other
side.  At the same time the top of Brice's head buried itself
under the beachcomber's chin, forcing the giant's jaw upward
and backward.  Then, safe inside his opponent's guard, he
abandoned his effort to stave off the giant's hold, and passed
his own arms about the other's waist, his hands meeting under
the small of the larger man's back.

The beach comber tried now to use his freed arms to gain the
grip that had once been so effective.  But his clasp could
close only over the slope of Brice's back and could find no
purchase.

While the man was groping for the right hold, Gavin threw all
his own power into a single move.  Tightening his underhold,
and drawing in on the small of the giant's back, he raised
himself on his toes, and pressed the top of his head, with all
his might, against the bottom of the beach-comber's chin.

The trick was not new.  But it was fearsomely effective.  It
was, as Gavin had explained, all a question of leverage.  The
giant's waist was drawn forward, His chin, simultaneously, was
shoved backward.  Such a dual cross pressure was due, eventually,
to mean one of two things:--either the snapping of the spine or
else the breaking of the neck.  Unless the grip could be broken,
there was no earthly help for its victim.

The beach comber, in agony of straining spine and throat,
thrashed wildly to free himself.  He strove to batter the
tenacious little man to senselessness.  But he could hit
nothing but the sloping back, or aim clumsily cramped hooks
for the top and sides of Gavin's protected head.

Meantime, the pressure was increasing, with a coldly scientific
precision.  Human nature could not endure it.  In his extremity,
the beach comber attempted the same ruse that had been so
successful for Brice.  He slumped, in pseudo-helplessness.  The
only result was to enable Gavin to tighten his hold, unopposed
by the tensing of the enemy's wall of muscles.

"I'm through!" bellowed the tortured giant, stranglingly, his
entire huge body one horror of agony.  "'Nuff!  I'm--"

He got no further.  For, the unspeakable anguish mounted to
his brain.  And he swooned.

Gavin Brice let the great body slide inert to the sand.  He
stood, flushed and panting a little, looking down at the hulk
he had so nearly annihilated.  Then, as the beach comber's
limbs began to twitch and his eyelids to quiver, Brice turned
away.

"Come along, puppy," he bade the wildly excited collie.  "He
isn't dead.  Another couple of seconds and his neck or his
back must have gone.  I'm glad he fainted first.  A killing
isn't a nice thing to remember on wakeful nights, the killing
of even a cur like that.  Come on, before he wakes up.  I'm
going somewhere.  And it's a stroke of golden luck that I've
got you to take with me, by way of welcome."

He had picked up and pocketed his watch.  Now, lifting the
knife, he glanced shudderingly at its ugly curved blade.  Then
he tossed it far out into the water.  After which, he chirped
again to the gladly following collie and made off down the
beach, toward a loop of mangrove swamp that swelled out into
the water a quarter-mile farther on.

The dog gamboled gayly about him, as they walked, and tried to
entice him into a romp.  Prancing invitingly toward Brice, the
collie would then flee from him in simulated terror.  Next,
crouching in front of him, the dog would snatch up a mouthful
of sand, growl, and make pattering gestures with his white
forefeet at Gavin's dusty shoes.

Failing to lure his new master into a frolic, the dog fell
sober and paced majestically alongside him, once or twice
earning an absent-minded pat on the head by thrusting his
muzzle into the cup of the walker's hand.

As they neared the loop of the swamp, the collie looked back,
and growled softly, under his breath.  Gavin followed the
direction of the dog's gaze.  He saw the beach comber sit up,
and then, with much pain and difficulty, get swayingly to his
feet.

"Don't worry, old chap," Gavin said to the growling collie.
"He's had all he can carry, for one day.  He's not going to
follow us.  By this time, he'll begin to realize, too, that
his face is battered pretty much to a pulp, and that some of
my body-smashes are flowering into bruises.  I pity him when
he wakes up to-morrow.  He'll be too stiff to move an inch,
without grunting.  His pluck and his nerve are no match for
his strength ....  Here we are!" he broke off, beginning to
skirt the hither edge of the swamp.  "Unless all my dope is
wrong, it ought to be somewhere close to this."

He walked more slowly, his keen eyes busily probing the
impenetrable face of the swamp.  He was practically at the
very end of the beach.  In front, the mangroves ran out into
the water, and in an unbroken line they extended far back to
landward.

The shining dark leaves made a thick screen, shutting from
view the interior of the swamp.  The reddish roots formed an
equally impenetrable fence, two feet high, all along the edge.
It would have been easier to walk through a hedge of bayonets
than to invade that barrier.

"Where mangroves grow, puppy," exhorted Brice, "there is
water.  Salt water, at that.  The water runs in far, here.
You can see that, by the depth of this mangrove forest.  At
first glance, it looks like an impasse, doesn't it?  And yet
it isn't.  Because--"

He broke off, in his ruminative talk.  The collie, bored
perhaps, by standing still so long, had at first turned
seaward.  But, as a wavelet washed against his white forefeet,
he drew back, annoyed, and began aimlessly to skirt the swamp,
to landward.  Before he had traveled twenty yards, he
vanished.

For a second or so, Gavin Brice stared stupidly at the
phenomenon of the jungle-like wall of mangroves that had
swallowed a seventy-pound dog.  Then his brow cleared, and a
glint of eagerness came into his eye.  Almost running, he
hurried to the spot where the dog had vanished.  Then he
halted, and called softly:

"Come, puppy!  Here!"

In immediate obedience to his call, the dog reappeared, at the
swamp's edge, wagging his plumy tail, glad to be summoned.
Before the collie could stir, Brice was at his side, taking
sharp note of the direction from which the dog had just
stepped out of the mangroves.

In front, the wall of leaves and branches still hung,
seemingly impenetrable.  The chief difference between this
spot and any on either side, was that the mangrove boughs had
apparently been trained to hang so low that the roots were
invisible.

Tentatively, Brice drew aside an armful of branches, just
above the waiting dog.  And, as though he had pulled back a
curtain, he found himself facing a well-defined path, cut
through the tangled thicket of root and trunk and bough--a
path that wound out of sight in the dark recesses of the
swamps.

Roots had been cleared away and patches of water filled with
them and with earth.  Here and there a plank bridge spanned a
gap of deeper water.  Altogether--so far as Brice could judge
in the fading light--the path was an excellent bit of rustic
engineering.  And it was hidden as cunningly from casual eyes
as ever was a hermit thrush's nest.

Some one had been at much pains and at more expense, to lay
out and develop that secret trail.  For it is no easy or cheap
task to build a sure path through such a swamp.  From a
distance, forests of mangrove seemed to be massed on rising
ground, and to group themselves about the sides and the crests
of knolls.  As a matter of fact, the presence of a mangrove
forest is a sign of the very lowest ground, ground covered for
the most part by salt tidewater.  The lowest pine barren is
higher than the loftiest mangrove wilderness.

Gavin Brice's aspect of lassitude dropped from him like an
outworn garment.  For hours--except during his brief encounter
with the beach comber--he had been steadily on the move, and
had covered a good bit of ground.  Yet, any one, seeing him as
he traversed the miles from the Royal Palm Park at Miami,
would have supposed from his gait that he was on some aimless
ramble.  Now, alert, quick-stepping, eager, he made his swift
way along the windings of the secret path.

Light as were his steps, they creaked lamentably at times on
the boards of a bridge-span.  More than once, he heard
slitherings, in the water and marsh to either side, as some
serpent or other slimy swamp-dweller wriggled away, at his
passing.  The collie trotted gravely along, just in front of
him, pausing once in a while, as if to make certain the man
was following.

The silence and gloom and sinister solemnity of the place had
had a dampening effect on the dog's gay spirits.  The backward
glances at his self-chosen master were for reassuring himself,
rather than for
guidance.  Surroundings have quicker and stronger effect on
collies than on almost any other kind of dog.  And these
surroundings, very evidently, were not to the collie's taste.
Several times, when the path's width permitted, he dropped
back to Gavin's side, to receive a word of friendly
encouragement or a pat on the head.

Outside of the grove's shadows the sun was sinking.  Not with
the glowing deliberation of sunsets in northern latitudes, but
with almost indecent haste.  In the dense shade of the forest,
twilight had fallen.  But the path still lay clear.  And
Brice's footsteps quickened, as in a race with darkness.

Then, at a twist of the path, the way suddenly grew lighter.
And at another turn, twilight brightened into clearness.  A
hundred feet ahead was a thin interlacing of moonflower vines,
compact enough, no doubt, to
prevent a view of the path to any one standing in the stronger
light beyond the grove, but making distinct to Brice a grassy
clearing beyond.

Upon this clearing, the brief bright afterglow was shining,
for the trim grass and shrubs of an upwardsloping lawn were
clearly visible.  For some minutes the water and the swamp
underfoot had given place to firmer ground, and the character
of the trees themselves had changed.  Evidently, the trail
had its ending at that screen of vineleaves draped between two
giant gumbo-limbo trees at the lawn's verge.

Thirty feet from the vines, Brice slackened his steps.  His
lithe body was vibrant with cautious watchfulness.  But, the
collie was not inclined to caution.  He hailed with evident
relief the sight of open spaces and of light after the gloomy
trail's windings.  And he broke into a canter.

Fearing to call aloud, Brice chirped and hissed softly at the
careering dog.  The collie, at sound of the recall, hesitated,
then began to trot back toward Gavin.  But, glancing wistfully
toward the light, as he started to obey the summons, his eye
encountered something which swept away all his dawning impulse
of obedience.

Athwart the bright end of the path, sprang a furry gray
creature, supple, fluffy, indescribably formless and immense
in that deceptive half-light.

Brice peered at the animal in astonishment, seeking to
classify it in his mind.  But the collie needed no effort of
that sort.  At first sight and scent, he knew well to what
tribe the furry gray newcomer belonged.  And, with a
trumpet-bark of joyous challenge, he dashed at it.

The creature fluffed itself to double its former size.  Then,
spitting and yowling, it ran up the nearer of the two
gumbo-limbo trees.  The dog reached the foot of the tree a
fraction of a second too late to seize the fox-like tail of
his prey.  And he circled wildly, barking at the top of his
lungs and making futile little running leaps up the shining
trunk of the tree.

As well hope for secrecy after the firing of a cannon as after
such a fanfare of barking!  Gavin Brice ran forward to grasp
the rackety collie.  As he did so, he was vaguely aware that a
slender and white-clad form was crossing the lawn, at a run,
toward the tree.

At the path-end, he and the figure came face to face.  Though
the other's back was to the fading light, Gavin
knew her for the girl he had seen in the Australian pine lane,
at Miami, that day.

"Pardon me," he began, trying in vain to make himself audible
through the collie's frantic barking.  "I found your dog, and
I have brought him back to you.  We--"

The glib explanation died, in his amazement-contracting
throat.  For, at his first word, the girl had checked her run
and had stood for an instant, gazing wideeyed at him.  Then,
clapping one little hand to her side, she produced from
somewhere a flash of metal.

And Gavin Brice found himself blinking stupidly into the
muzzle of a small revolver, held, unwaveringly, not three feet
from his face.  Behind the gun were a pair of steady gray eyes
and a face whose dainty outlines were just now set in a mask
of icy grimness.

"That isn't a bluff," ran his involuntary thoughts, as he read
the eyes behind the ridiculously tiny weapon.  "She really
means to shoot!"



CHAPTER II

THE MAN IN THE DARK


For several seconds the two stood thus, the man dumfounded,
moveless, gaping, the girl as grimly resolute as Fate itself,
the little revolver steady, its muzzle unwaveringly menacing
Brice's face.  The collie continued to gyrate, thunderously
around the tree.

"I don't want to shoot you," said the girl presently, and,
through her voice's persistent sternness, Gavin fancied he
could read a thrill of very feminine concern.  "I don't want
to shoot you.  If I can help it.  You will put your hands up."

Meekly, Brice obeyed.

"Now," she resumed, "you will turn around, and go back the way
you came.  And you will go as fast as you can travel.  I shall
follow you to the second turning.  Then I shall fire into the
air.  That will bring--one or more of the men.  And they will
see you don't turn back.  I'm--I'm giving you that much chance
to get away.  Because I--I don't want--"

She hesitated.  The grimness had begun to seep out of her
sweet voice.  The revolver-muzzle wobbled, ever so little.

"I'm sorry," began Brice.  "But--"

"I don't care to hear any explanations," she cut him short,
sternly.  "Your coming along that path could mean only one
thing.  You will do as I say.--You will turn about and make
what use you can of the start I'm offering you.  Now--"

"I'm sorry," repeated Brice, more determinedly, and trying
hard to keep his twitching face straight.  "But I can't do
what you ask.  It was hard enough coming along that path,
while the light lasted.  If I were to go back over it in the
dark, I'd break my neck on a million mangrove roots.  If it's
just the same to you, I'll take my chances with the pistol.
It'll be an easier death, and in pleasanter company.  So, if
you really must shoot then blaze away!"

He lowered his upraised arms, folding them melodramatically on
his breast, while he sought, through the gloom, to note the
effect of his solemnly uttered speech.  The effect was far
different and less sensational than he had expected.  At the
first sound of his voice that was audible above the collie's
barks, the girl lowered the revolver and leaned forward to get a
clearer view of his face, beneath the shadow of the vine-leaves.

"I--I thought--" she stammered, and added lamely "I thought
you were--were--were some one else."  She paused, then she
went on with some slight return of her earlier sternness "Just
the same, your coming here by that path..."

"There is no magic about it," he assured her, "and very little
mystery.  I was taking a stroll along the shore, when I
happened upon that mass of dynamite and fur and springs,
yonder.  (In his rare moments of calm, he is a collie,--the
best type of show collie, at that.) He ran ahead of me,
through the tangle of mangrove boughs.  I followed, and found
a path.  He seemed anxious to explore the path, and I kept on
following him, until--"

The girl seemed for the first time aware of the dog's noisy
presence.

"Oh!" she exclaimed, looking at the rackety and leaping collie
in much surprise.  "I thought it was the stable dog that had
treed Simon Cameron!  I didn't notice.  He-- Why!" she cried,
"that's Bobby Burns!  We lost him, on the way here from the
station!  My brother has gone back to Miami to offer a reward
for him.  He came from the North, this morning.  We drove into
town to get him.  On the way out, he must have fallen from the
back seat.  We didn't miss him till we-- How did you happen
to find him?"

"He was on the beach, back yonder," explained Brice.  "He
seemed to adopt me, and..."

"Haven't I met you, somewhere?" she broke in, studying his
dim-seen face more intently and at closer range.

"No," he made answer.  "But you've seen me.  At least I saw
you.  You, and a big man with a gold beard and a white silk
suit, and this collie, were in a car, listening to Bryan's
sermon, this morning.  I recognized the collie, as soon as I
saw him again.  And I guessed what must have happened.  I
guessed, too, that he was a new dog, and that he hadn't
learned the way home, yet.  It's lucky I was able to bring him
to you.  Or, rather, that he was able to bring himself to
you."

"And to think I rewarded you for all your trouble, by
threatening to shoot you!" she said, in sharp contrition.

"Oh, please don't feel sorry for that!" he begged.  "It wasn't
really as deadly as you made it seem.  That is an old style
revolver, you see, vintage of 1880 or thereabouts, I should
say.  Not a self-cocker.  And, you'll notice it isn't cocked.
So, even if you had stuck to your lethal threat and had pulled
the trigger ever so hard, I'd still be more or less alive.
You'll excuse me for mentioning it," he ended in apology,
noting her crestfallen air.  "Any novice in the art of slaying
might have done the same thing.  Shooting people is an
accomplishment that improves with practice."

Coldly, she turned away, and crossed to where the collie was
beginning to weary of his fruitless efforts to climb the
shinily smooth bark of the giant gumbo-limbo.  Catching him by
the collar, she said:

"Bobby!  Bobby Burns!  Stop that silly barking!  Stop it at
once!  And leave poor little Simon Cameron alone!  Aren't you
ashamed?"

Now, Bobby was not in the least ashamed--except for his
failure to reach his elusive prey.  But, like many highbred
and highstrung collies, he did not fancy having his collar
seized by a stranger.  He did not resent the act with snarls
and a show of teeth, as in the case of the beach comber.  But
he stiffened to offended dignity, and, with a sudden jerk,
freed himself from the little detaining hand.

Then, loftily, he stalked across to Gavin and thrust his
muzzle once more into the man's cupped palm.  As clearly as by
a dictionary-ful of words, he had rebuked her familiarity and
had shown to whom he felt he owed sole allegiance.

While the girl was still staring in rueful indignation at this
snub from her dog, Brice found time and thought to stare with
still greater intentness up the tree, at a bunch of bristling
fur which occupied the first crotch and which glared
wrathfully down at the collie.

He made out the contour and bashed-in profile of a huge
Persian cat, silver-gray of hue, dense of coat, green of eye.

"So that's Simon Cameron?" he queried.  "What a beauty!  And
what a quaintly Oriental name you've chosen for him!"

"He is named," said the girl, still icily, "for a statesman my
parents admired.  My brother says our Persian's hair is just
the same color as Simon Cameron's used to be.  That's why we
named him that.  You'll notice the cat has the beautifullest
silvery gray hair--"

"Prematurely gray, I'm sure," put in Brice, civilly.

She looked at him, in doubt.  But his face was grave.  And she
turned to the task of coaxing the indignant Simon Cameron from
his tree-refuge.

"Simon Cameron always walks around the grounds with me, at
sunset," she explained, in intervals of cajoling the grumpy
mass of fluff to descend.  "And he ran ahead of me, to-day, to
the edge of the path.  That must have been when Bobby caught
sight of him..."

"Come, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty!" she coaxed.  "Do be a good little
cat, and come down.  See, the dog can't get at you, now.  He's
being held.  Come!"

The allurement of his mistress's voice produced no stirring
effect on the temperamental Simon Cameron.  Beyond leaving the
crotch and edging mincingly downward, a yard or so, the
Persian refused to obey the crooning summons.  Plastered flat
against the tree trunk, some nine feet above the ground, he
miaued dolefully.

"Hold Bobby's collar," suggested Brice, "and I think I can get
the prematurely grizzled catling to earth."

The girl came over to where man and dog stood, and took Bobby
Burns by the collar.  Brice crossed to the tree and looked
upward at the yowling Simon Cameron.

"Hello, you good little cat!" he hailed, cooingly.  "Cats
always like to be called 'good,' you know.  All of us are
flattered when we're praised for something we aren't.  A dog
doesn't care much about being called 'good.' Because he knows
he is.  But a cat..."

As he talked, Gavin scratched gratingly on the tree trunk, and
gazed up in ostentatious admiration at the coy Simon Cameron.
The Persian, like all his kind, was foolishly open to
admiration.  Brice's look, his crooning voice, his
entertaining fashion of scratching the tree for the cat's
amusement all these proved a genuine lure.  Down the tree
started Simon Cameron, moving backward, and halting
coquettishly at every few inches.

Gavin reached up and lifted the fluffy creature from the
trunk, cradling him in expert manner in the crook of one arm.
Simon Cameron forgot his fear and purred loudly, rubbing his
snub-nose face against his captor's sleeve.

"Don't feel too much flattered," adjured the girl.  "He's like
that, with all strangers.  As soon as he has known most people
a day or two, he'll have nothing to do with them."

"I know," assented Gavin.  "That's a trick of Persian cats.
They have an inordinate interest in every one except the
people they know.  Their idea of heaven is to be admired by a
million strangers at a time.  If
I'd had any tobacco-reek on me, Simon Cameron wouldn't have
let me hold him as long as this.  Persian's hate tobacco."

He set the soothed animal down on the lawn, where, after one
scornful look at the tugging and helpless dog, Simon Cameron
proceeded to rub his arched back against the man's legs, thus
transferring a goodly number of fluffy gray hairs to Brice's
shabby trousers.  Tiring of this, he minced off, affectedly,
toward the distant house that stood at the landward end of the
sloping lawn.

As he set the cat down, Brice had stepped out of the shadows
of the grove, into the open.  And now, not only his face, but
his whole body was clearly visible in the dying daylight.  The
girl's eyes ran appraisingly over the worn clothes and the
cracking and dusty shoes.  Brice felt, rather than saw, her
appraisal.  And he knew she was contrasting his costume with
his voice and his clean-shaven face.  She broke the moment of
embarrassed silence by saying "You must be tired after your
long tramp, from Miami.  Were you walking for fun and
exercise, or are you bound for any especial place?"  He knew
she was fencing, that his clothes made her wonder if she ought
not to offer him some cash payment for finding her dog,--a
reward she would never have dreamed of offering on the
strength of his manner and voice.  Also, it seemed, she was
seeking some way of closing the interview without dismissing
him or walking away.  And he answered with perfect
simplicity:

"No, I wasn't walking for exercise or fun.  There are better
and easier ways of acquiring fun than by plodding for hours in
the hot sunshine.  And of getting exercise, too.  I was on my
way to Homestead or to some farming place along the line,
where I might pick up a job."

"Oh!"

"Yes.  I could probably have gotten a place as dishwasher or
even as a 'bus' or porter, in one of the big Miami hotels," he
pursued, "or a billet with one of the dredging gangs in the
harbor.  But somehow I'd rather do farm work of some sort.  It
seems less of a slump, when a chap is down on his luck, than
to go in for scrubbing or for section-gang hustling.  There
are farms and citrus groves, all along here, just back of the
bay.  And I'm looking for one of them where I can get a decent
day's work to do and a decent day's wages for doing it."

He spoke with an almost overdone earnestness.  The girl was
watching him, attentively, a furrow between her straight
brows.  Somehow, her level look made him uncomfortable.  He
continued, with a shade less assurance:

"I was brought up on a farm, though I haven't been on one
since I was eighteen.  I might have been better off if I'd
stayed there.  Anyhow, when a man's prospects of starving are
growing brighter every day, a farm-job is about the pleasantest
sort of work he can find."

"Starving!" she repeated, in something like contempt.  "If you
had been in this region a little longer--say, long enough to
pronounce the name, 'Miami' as it's pronounced down here,
instead of calling it 'Me-ah-mee,' as you did--if you'd been
here longer, you'd know that nobody need starve in Florida.
Nobody who is willing to work.  There's the fishing, and the
construction gangs, and the groves, and the farms, and a
million other ways of making a living.  The weather lets you
sleep outdoors, if you have to.  The..."

"I've done it," he chimed in.  "Slept outdoors, I mean.  Last
night, for instance.  I slept very snugly indeed, under a
Traveler Tree in the gardens of the Royal Palm Hotel.  There
was a dance at the hotel.  I went to sleep, under the stars,
to the lullaby of a corking good orchestra.  The only drawback
was that a spooning couple who were engineering a 'petting
party,' almost sat down on my head, there in the darkness.
Not that I'd have minded being a settee for them.  But they
might have told one of the watchmen about my being there.  And
I'd have had to hunt other sleeping quarters."

She did not abate that look of quizzical appraisal.  And again
Gavin Brice began to feel uncomfortable under her scrutiny.

"You have an orange grove, back yonder, haven't you?" he
asked, abruptly, nodding toward a landward stretch of ground
shut off from the lawn by a thickset hedge of oleander.

"How did you know?" she demanded in suspicion.  "By this light
you couldn't possibly see--"

"Oddly enough," he said, in the pleasant drawling voice she
was learning to like in spite of her better judgment, "oddly
enough, I was born with a serviceable pair of nostrils.  There
is a scent of orange blossoms hanging fairly strong in the
air.  It doesn't come from the mangrove swamp behind me or
from the highroad in front of your house or from the big
garden patch to the south of the lawn.  So I made a Sherlock
Holmes guess that it must be over there to northward, and
pretty close.  Besides, that's the only direction the Trade
Winds could bring the scent from."

Again, she was aware of a certain glibness in his tone,--a
glibness that annoyed her and at the same time piqued her
curiosity.

"Yes," she said, none too cordially.  "Our orange groves are
there.  Why do you ask?"

"Only," he replied, "because where there are large citrus
groves on one side of a house and fairly big vegetable gardens
on the other, it means the need for a good bit of labor.  And
that may mean a chance for a job.  Or it may not.  You'll pardon
my suggesting it.

"My brother needs no more labor," she replied.  "At least, I
am quite certain he doesn't.  In fact, he has more men working
here now than he actually needs.  I--I've heard him say so.
Of course, I'll be glad to ask him, when he comes back from
town.  And if you'd care to leave your address--"

"Gladly," said Brice.  "Any letter addressed to me, as 'Gavin
Brice, in care of Traveler Tree, rear gardens of Royal Palm
Hotel,' will reach me.  Unless, of course, the night watchmen
chance to root me out.  In that case, I'll leave word with
them where mail may be forwarded.  In the meantime, it's
getting pretty dark, and I don't know this part of Dade County
as well as I'd like to.  So I'll be starting on.  If you don't
mind, I'll cross your lawn, and take the main road.  It's
easier going, at night than by way of the mangrove swamp and
the beach.  Good night, Miss--"

"Wait!" she interposed, worry creeping into her sweet voice.
"I--I can't let you go like this.  Do you really mean you have
to sleep out of doors and that you have no money?  I don't
want to be impertinent, but--"

"'Nobody need starve in Florida,'" he quoted, gravely.
"'Nobody who is willing to work.  The weather lets you sleep
outdoors.'  (In which, the weather chimes harmoniously with my
pocketbook.)  And, as I am extremely 'willing to work,' it
follows that I can't possibly starve.  But I thank you for
feeling concerned about me.  It's a long day since a woman has
bothered her head whether I live or die.  Good night, again,
Miss--"

A second time, she ignored his hint that she tell him her
name.  Too much worried over his light words and the real need
they seemed to cover, to heed the subtler intent, she said, a
little tremulously:

"I--I don't understand you, at all.  Not that it is any
business of mine, of course.  But I hate to think that any one
is in need of food or shelter.  Your voice and your face and
the way you talk--they don't fit in with the rest of you.
Such men as yourself don't drift, penniless, through Lower
Florida, looking for day-laborer jobs.  I can't understand--"

"Every one who speaks decent English and yet is down-and-out,"
he said, quietly, "isn't necessarily a tramp or a fugitive
from justice.  And he doesn't need to be a man of mystery,
either.  Suppose, let's say, a clerk in New York has been too
ill, for a long time, to work.  Suppose illness has eaten all
his savings, and that he doesn't care to borrow, when he knows
he may never be able to pay.  Suppose his doctor tells him he
must go South, to get braced up, and to avoid a New York
February and March.  Suppose the patient has only about money
enough to get here, and relies on finding something to do to
keep him in food and lodging.  Well--there's nothing
mysterious or especially discreditable in that, is there? ...
The dew is beginning to fall.  And I'm keeping you out here in
the damp.  Good night, Miss--Miss--"

"Standish," she supplied, but speaking absently, her
mind still perturbed at his plight.  "My name is Standish.
Claire Standish."

"Mine is Gavin Brice," he said.  "Good night.  Keep hold of
Bobby Burns's collar, till I'm well on my way.  He may try to
follow me.  Good-by, old chap," he added, bending down and
taking the collie's silken head affectionately between his
hands.  "You're a good dog, and a good pal.  But put the soft
pedal on the temperamental stuff, when you're near Simon
Cameron.  That's the best recipe for avoiding a scratched
nose.  By the way, Miss Standish, don't encourage him to roam
around in the palmetto scrub, on your outings with him.  The
rattlesnakes have gotten many a good dog, in Florida.  He--"

"Mr. Brice!" she broke in.  "If I offend you, I can't help it.
Won't you please let me--let me lend you enough money to keep
you going, till you get a good job?  Please do!  Of course,
you can pay me, as soon as--"

"'I have not found such faith,--no, not in Israel!'" quoted
Brice, a new note in his voice which somehow stirred the
embarrassed girl's heart.  "You have only my bare word that
I'm not a panhandler or a crook.  And yet you believe in me
enough to--"

"You will let me?" she urged, eagerly.  "Say you will!  Say
it."

"I'll make cleaner use of your faith," he returned, "by asking
you to say a good word for me to your brother, if ever I come
back here looking for a job.  No, no!" he broke off, fiercely,
before she could answer.  "I don't mean that.  You must do
nothing of the kind.  Forget I asked it."

With which amazing outburst, he turned on his heel, ran across
the lawn, leaped the low privet hedge which divided it from
the coral road, and made off at a swinging pace in the
direction of Coconut Grove and Miami.

"What a fool--and what a cur--a man can make of himself," he
muttered disgustedly as he strode along, without daring to
look back at the wondering little white-clad figure, watching
him out of sight around the bend, "when he gets to talking
with a woman--a woman with--with eyes like hers!  They--why,
they make me feel as if I was in church!  What sort of
bungling novice am I, anyhow, for work like this?"

With a grunt of self-contempt, he drove his hands deep into
the pockets of his shabby trousers and quickened his pace.
His fingers closed mechanically around a roll of bills, of
very respectable size, in the depths of his right-hand pocket.
The gesture caused a litter of small change to give forth a
muffled jingle.  A sense of shame crept over the man, at the
contact.

"She wanted to lend me money!" he muttered, half-aloud.
"Money!  Not give it to me, as a beggar, but to lend it to
me....  Her nose has the funniest little tilt to it!  And she
can't be an inch over five feet tall! ...  I'm a wall-eyed
idiot!"

He stood aside to let two cars pass him, one going in either
direction.  The lamps of the car from the west, traveling
east, showed him for a moment the occupant of the car that was
moving westward.  The brief ray shone upon a pair of shoulders
as wide as a steam radiator.  They were clad in loose-fitting
white silk.  Above them a thick golden beard caught the ray of
shifting light.  Then, both cars had passed on, and Brice was
resuming his trudge.

"Milo Standish!" he mused, looking back at the car as it
vanished in a cloudlet of white coral-dust.  "Milo Standish!
...  As big as two elephants ....  'The bigger they are, the
harder they fall.'"

The road curved, from the Standish estate, in almost a "C"
formation, before straightening out, a mile to the north, into
the main highway.  Gavin Brice had just reached the end of the
"C" when there was a scurrying sound behind him, in a
grapefruit grove to his right.  Something light and agile
scrambled over the low coral-block wall, and flung itself
rapturously on him.

It was Bobby Burns.

The collie had suffered himself to be led indoors by the girl
whom he had never seen until that morning, and for whom, thus
far, he had formed no affection.  But his wistful, deepset
dark eyes had followed Gavin Brice's receding form.  He could
not believe this dear new friend meant to desert him.  As
Brice did not stop, nor even look back, the collie waxed
doubtful.  And he tugged to be free.  Claire spoke gently to
him, a slight quiver in her own voice, her dark eyes, like
his, fixed upon the dwindling dark speck on the dusky white
road.

"No, Bobby!" she said, under her breath, as she petted the
restless head.  "He won't come back.  Let's forget all about
it.  We both behaved foolishly, you and I, Bobby.  And
he--well, let's just call him eccentric, and not think about
him any more."

She drew the reluctant collie into the house, and closed the
door.  But, a few minutes later, when her back chanced to be
turned, and when a maid came into the room leaving the door
ajar, Bobby slipped out.

In another five seconds he was in the road, casting about for
Brice's trail.  Finding it, he set off, at a hard gallop,
nostrils close to the ground.  Having once been hit and
bruised, in puppyhood, by a motor car, the dog had a wholesome
respect for such rapid and ill-smelling vehicles.  Thus, as he
saw the lights and heard the engine-purr of one of them,
coming toward him, down the road, he dodged back into the
wayside hedge until it passed.  Which is the reason Milo
Standish failed to see the dog he had been hunting for.

A little later, Brice's scent became so distinct that the
collie could abandon his nose-to-the-ground tactics and strike
across country, by dead-reckoning, guided not only by his nose
but by the sound of Gavin's steps.  Then, in an access of
delight, he burst upon the plodding man.

"Why, Bobby!" exclaimed Brice, touched by the dog's rapture in
having found him again.  "Why, Bobby Burns!  What on earth
made you follow me?  Don't you know I'm not your master?
Don't you, Bobby?"

He was petting the frisking collie as he talked.  But now he
faced about.

"I've got to take you back to her, old man!" he informed the
highly interested dog.  "You belong to her.  And she'll worry
about you.  I'll just take you into the dooryard or to the
front lawn or whatever it is, and tie you there, so some one
will find you.  I don't want to get my plans all messed up by
another talk with her, to-night.  It's a mean trick to play on
you, after you've taken all the trouble to follow me.  But
you're hers.  After this rotten business is all over, maybe
I'll try to buy you.  It's worth ninety per cent of your value
to have had you pick me out for your master.  Any man with
cash enough can be a dog's owner, Bobby.  But all the cash in
the world won't make him the dog's master without the dog's
own consent.  Ever stop to think of that, Bobby?"

As he talked, half incoherently, to the delighted collie,
Gavin was retracing his way over the mile or so he had just
traversed.  He grudged the extra steps.  For the day had been
long and full of exercise.  And he was more than comfortably
tired.  But he kept on, wondering vexedly at the little throb
of eagerness in his heart as Claire Standish's home at last
bulked dimly into view around the last curve of the byroad.

Bobby Burns trotted happily beside him, reveling in the man's
occasional rambling words, as is the flattering way collies
have when they are talked to, familiarly, by the human they
love.  And so the two neared the house, their padding
footsteps noiseless in the soft white dust of the road.

There were lights in several windows.  One strong ray was cast
full across the side lawn, penetrating almost as far as the
beginning of the forest at the rear.  Toward this vivid beam,
Gavin bent his steps, fumbling in his pocket as he went, for
something with which to tie Bobby to the nearest tree.

As he moved forward and left the road for the closecropped
grass of the lawn, he saw a dim white shadow advancing
obliquely in his direction.  And, for an instant, his
heartbeats quickened, ever so slightly.  Then, he was
disgusted with his own fatuousness.  For the white form was
double the size of Claire Standish.  And he knew this was her
brother, crossing from the garage to a door of the house.

The big man swung along with the easy gait of perfect physical
strength.  And as the window, whence flowed the light-ray, was
alongside the door he intended to enter, his journey toward
the house lay in the direct path of the ray.

Brice, in the darkness, just inside the gateway, stood
moveless and waited for him to traverse the hundred feet or so
that remained between him and the veranda.  The collie
fidgeted, at sight of the man in white, and began to growl,
inquiringly, far down in his throat.

Gavin patted Bobby Burns reassuringly on the head, to quiet
him.  He was of no mind to introduce himself at the Standish
home, a second time, as the returner of a runaway dog.
Wherefore, he sought to remain unseen, and to wait with what
patience he could until the householder should have gone
indoors.

Apparently, on reaching home, Standish had driven the car to
the garage and had pottered around there for some minutes
before starting for the house.  He was carrying something
loosely in one hand, and he did not seem in any hurry.

"My friend," said Gavin, soundlessly, "if a girl like Claire
Standish was waiting for me, beyond, that shaft of light, I'd
make the trip in something better than no time at all.  But
then--she's not my sister, thank the good Lord!"

He grinned at his own silly thoughts concerning the girl he
had talked to for so brief a time.  Yet he found himself
looking at her elder brother with a certain reluctant
friendliness, on her account.

Suddenly, the grin was wiped from his face, and he was tense
from head to foot.

Standish, on his way homeward, was strolling past a clump of
dwarf shrubbery.  And, idly watching him, Gavin could have
sworn that one end of the shrubbery moved.

Then, he was no longer in doubt.  The bit of darkness detached
itself from the rest of the shrubbery, as Milo lounged past,
and it sprang, catlike, at the unsuspecting man's back.

Into the path of light it leaped.  In the same atom of time,
Gavin Brice shouted aloud in sharp warning, and dashed forward,
the collie at his side.

But he was fifty feet away.  And his shout served only to make
Standish halt, staring about him.

It was then that the creature from the shrubbery made his
spring.  He struck venomously at Standish, from behind.  And
Gavin could see, in the striking hand, a glitter of steel.

Standish--warned perhaps by sound, perhaps by instinct--wheeled
half-way around.  Thus the knifeblow missed its mark between
his shoulder-blades.  Not the blade, but the fist which
gripped it, smote full on Standish's shoulder.  The deflected
point merely shore the white coat from neck to waist.

There was no scope to strike again.  And the assailant
contented himself with passing his free arm garrotingly around
Standish's neck, from behind, and leaping upward, bringing his
knees into the small of the victim's back.

Here evidently was no amateur slayer.  For, even as the
knife-thrust missed its mark, he had resorted to the second
ruse, and before Standish could turn around far enough to
avert it.

Down went the big man, under the strangle-hold and knee-purchase.
With a crash that knocked the breath out of him and dazed him, he
landed on his back, his head smiting the sward with a resounding
thwack.

His adversary, once more, wasted not a jot of time.  As
Standish struck ground, the man was upon him, knife again
aloft, poised above the helpless Milo's throat.

And it was then that Gavin Brice's flying feet brought him to
the scene.

As he ran he had heard a door open.  And he knew his warning
shout had reached the ears of some one in the house,--perhaps
of Claire.  But he had no time nor thought for anything, just
then, except the stark need of reaching Milo Standish before
the knife could strike.

He launched himself, after the fashion of a football tackle,
straight for the descending arm.  And, for a few seconds all
three men rolled and wallowed and fought in a jumble of flying
arms and legs and heads.

Brice had been lucky enough or dextrous enough to catch the
knife-wielder's wrist and to wrench it far to one side, as it
whizzed downward.  With his other hand he had groped for the
slayer's throat.

Then, he found himself attacked with a maniac fury by the man
whose murderous purpose he had thwarted.  Still gripping the
knife-wrist, he was sore put to it to fend off an avalanche of
blows from the other arm and of kicks from both of the
assailant's deftly plied feet.

Nor was his task made the easier by the fact that Milo
Standish had recovered from the momentary daze, and was
slugging impartially at both the men who rolled and tossed on
top of him.

This, for a short but excessively busy space of moments.
Then, wriggling free of Milo's impeding and struggling bulk,
Brice gained the throat-hold he sought.  Still holding to the
ground the wrist of the knifehand, he dug his supple fingers
deep into the man's throat, disregarding such blows and kicks
as he could not ward off.

There was science in his ferocious onslaught.  And his skilled
fingers had found the windpipe and the carotid artery as well.
With such force as Brice was able to exert, the other's breath
was shut off, while he was all but paralyzed by the digging
pressure into his carotid.

Such a grip is well understood by Japanese athletes, though
its possibilities and method are unknown to the average
Occidental.  Rightly applied, it is irresistible.  Carried to
its conclusion, it spells sudden and agonizing death to its
victim.

And Gavin Brice was carrying it to the conclusion, with all
the sinew and science of his trained arms.

The knifer's strength was gorilla-like.  But that strength, at
every second, was rendered more and more futile.  The man must
have realized it.  For, all at once, he ceased his battery of
kicks and blows, and struggled frantically to tear free.

Each plunging motion merely intensified the pain and power of
the relentless throat-grip that pinioned him.  And, strangling
and panic-struck, he became wilder in his fruitless efforts to
wrench loose.  Then, deprived of breath and with his
nerve-centers shaken, he lost the power to strive.

It was the time for which Gavin had waited.  With perfect
ease, now, he twisted the knife from the failing grasp, and,
with his left hand, he reinforced the throat-grip of his
right.  As he did so, he got his legs under him and arose,
dragging upward with him the all but senseless body of his
garroted foe.

It had been a pretty bit of work, from the start, and one upon
which his monkey-faced Japanese jui-jutsu
instructor would have lavished a grunt of approval.

He had conquered an armed and muscular enemy by his knowledge
of anatomy and by applying the simple grip he had learned.
And now, the heaving half-dead murderer was at his mercy.

Gavin swung the feebly twitching body out, more fully into the
streak of light from the house, noting, subconsciously that
the light ray was twice as broad as before, by reason of the
door's standing open.

But, before he could concentrate his gaze on the man he held,
he saw several million other things.  And all the several
million were multi-hued stars and bursting bombs.

The entire universe seemed to have exploded and to have chosen
the inside of his brain as the site for such annoying
pyrotechnics.  Dully he was aware that his hands were
loosening their death-grip and that his arms were falling to
his sides.  Also, that his knees had turned to hot tallow and
were crumbling, under him.

None of these amazing phenomena struck him as at all
interesting.  Indeed, nothing struck him as worth noting.  Not
even the display of myriad shooting stars.  It all seemed
quite natural, and it all lasted for the merest breath of
time.

Through the universe of varicolored lights and explosions, he
was aware of a woman's cry.  And, somehow, this pierced the
mist of his senses, and found its way to his heart.  But only
for an instant.

Then, instead of tumbling to earth, he felt himself sinking
down, uncountable miles, through a cool darkness.  The dark
was comforting, after all that bothersome display of lights.

And, while he was still falling, he drifted into a dead sleep.



CHAPTER III

THE MOCKING BIRD


After centuries of unconsciousness, Gavin Brice began to
return, bit by bit, to his senses.

The first thing he knew was that the myriad shooting stars in
his head had changed somehow into a myriad shooting pains.  He
was in torment.  And he was deathly sick.

His trained brain forced itself to a semblance of sanity, and
he found himself piecing together vaguely the things that had
happened to him.  He could remember seeing Milo Standish
strolling toward the veranda in the shaft of light from the
window, then the black figure which detached itself from the
shrubbery and sprang on the unheeding man, and his own attempt
to turn aside the arm that wielded the knife.

But everything else was a blank.

Meanwhile, the countless shooting pains were merging into one
intolerable ache.  Brice had no desire to stir or even to open
his eyes.  The very thought of motion was abhorrent.  The mere
effort at thinking was painful.  So he lay still.

Presently, he was aware of something that touched his head.
And he wondered why the touch did not add to his hurt, but was
soothing.  Even a finger's weight might have been expected to
jar his battered skull.

But there was no jar to this touch.  Rather was it cooling and
of infinite comfort.  And now he realized that it had been
continuing for some time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then came a panting voice out of the darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"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
head?"

"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
thing."

"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
grandeur.

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?"



CHAPTER V

TRAPS AND TRAPPER


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
pirates."

"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
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.
"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.

In rushed the water, filling her in an incredibly short time.
Settling by the head under the weight of this inpouring flood
she toppled off the tooth of reef and slid free.  Then with a
wallowing dignity she proceeded to sink.

The iron sheathing on her keel and hull had not been strong
enough in its rusted state to resist the hammerblow of the
reef.  But it was heavy enough, together with her big metal
steering apparatus, to counterbalance any buoyant qualities
left in the wooden frame.

And, down she went, waddling like a fat and ponderous hen,
into a twenty-foot nest of water.

Gavin had wasted no time in the impossible feat of baling her
or of plugging her unpluggable leak.  As she went swayingly
toward the bottom of the bay he slipped clear of her and
struck out through the tepid water.

The mangrove swamp's beach was a bare half-mile away.  And the
man knew he could swim the intervening space with ease.  Yet
the tedious delay of it all irked him and fanned to a blind
fury his rage against Milo.  Moreover, now, he could not hope
to reach the hidden path before real darkness should set in.
And he did not relish the idea of traversing its blind mazes
without a glimmer of daylight to guide him.

Yet he struck out, stubbornly, doggedly.  As he passed the
tooth of coral that had wrecked his scow the reef gave him a
painful farewell scrape on one kicking knee.  He swam on
fuming at this latest annoyance.

Then to his ears came the steady purr of a motorboat.  It was
close to him and coming closer.

"Boat ahoy!" he sang out treading water and raising himself as
high as possible to peer about him through the dusk.

"Boat ahoy!" he called again, shouting to be heard above the
motor's hum.  "Man overboard!  Ten dollars if you'll carry me
to the mainland!"

And now he could see against the paler hue of the sky.  the
dark outlines of the boat's prow.  It was bearing down on him.
Above the bow's edge he could make out the vague silhouette of
a head and upper body.

Then into his memory flashed something which the shock of his
upsetting had completely banished.  He recalled the motorboat
which had darted, arrow-like, out from around the southern
edge of the mangrove swamp, and which he had been watching
when his scow went to pieces on the reef.

If this were the same boat--if its steersman chanced to be
Milo Standish crossing to the key to learn if his murderplot
had yet culminated--so much the better!  Man to man, there
between sea and sky in the gathering gloom, they could settle
the account once and for all.

Perhaps Standish had recognized him.  Perhaps he merely took
him for some capsized fisherman.  In either event, a swimming
man is the most utterly defenseless of all creatures against
attack from land or from boat.  And Gavin was not minded to
let Standish finish his work with boat-hook or with oar.  If
he and his foe were to meet it should be on even terms.

The boat had switched off power and was coming to a
standstill.  Gavin dived.  He swam clean under the craft,
lengthwise, coming up at its stern and farthest from that
indistinct figure in the prow.

As he rose to the surface he caught with both hands the narrow
overhang of the stern, and with a mighty heave he hoisted
himself hip-high out of the water.

Thence it was the work of a bare two seconds for him to swing
himself over the stern and to land on all fours in the bottom
of the boat.  The narrow craft careened dangerously under such
treatment.  But she righted herself, and by the time he had
fairly landed upon the cleated bottom.  Brice was on his feet
and making for the prow.  He was ready now for any emergency
and could meet his adversary on equal terms.

"Mr. Brice!" called the boat's other occupant, springing up,
her sweet voice trembling and almost tearful.  "Oh, thank God
you're safe!  I was so frightened!"

"Miss Standish!" sputtered Gavin, aghast.  "Miss Standish!"

For a moment they stood staring at each other through the
darkness, wordless, breathing hard.  Their quick breath and
the trickling of fifty runnels of water from Gavin's drenched
clothes into the bottom of the once-tidy boat alone broke the
tense stillness of sky and bay.  Then:

"You're safe?  You're not harmed?" panted the girl.

And the words brought back with a rush to Gavin Brice all he
had been through.

"Yes," he made harsh answer trying to steady his rage-choked
voice.  "I am safe.  I am not harmed.  Apart from a few
fire-blisters on my ankles and the charring of my clothes and
the barking of one knee against a bit of submerged coral and
the cutting of my fingers rather badly and a few more minor
mischances--I'm quite safe and none the worse for the Standish
family's charming hospitality.  And, by the way, may I suggest
that it might have been better for your brother or the
gentle-hearted Mr. Hade to run across to the key to get news
of my fate, instead of sending a girl on such an errand?  It's
no business of mine, of course.  And I don't presume to
criticize two such noble heroes.  But surely they ought not
have sent you.  If their kindly plan had worked out according
to schedule.  I should not have been a pretty sight for a
woman to look at, by this time.  I--"

"I--I don't understand half of the things you're saying!" she
cried, shrinking from his taunting tone
as from a fist-blow.  "They don't make any sense to me.  But I
do see why you're so angry.  And I don't blame you.  It was
horrible!  Horrible!  It--"

"It was all that," he agreed drily, breaking in on her
quivering speech and steeling himself against its pitiful
appeal.  "All that.  And then some.  And it's generous of you
not to blame me for being just the very tiniest least bit
riled by it.  That helps.  I was afraid my peevishness might
displease you.  My temper isn't what it should be.  If it were
I should be apologizing to you for getting your nice boat all
sloppy like this."

"Please!" she begged.  "Please!  Won't you please try not
to--to think too hardly of my brother?  And won't you please
acquit me of knowing anything of it?  I didn't know.
Honestly.  Mr Brice.  I didn't.  When Milo came back home
without you he told me you had decided to stay on at
Roustabout Key to help Roke, till the new foreman could come
from Homestead."

"Quite so," assented Gavin, his voice as jarring as a file's.
"I did.  And he decided that I shouldn't change my mind.
He--"

"It wasn't till half an hour ago," she hurried on, miserably,
"that I knew.  I was coming down stairs.  Milo and Rodney Hade
were in the music-room together.  I didn't mean to overhear.
But oh, I'm so glad I did!"

"I'm glad it could make you so happy," he said.  "The pleasure
is all yours."

"All I caught was just this:" she went on.  "Rodney was
saying: 'Nonsense!  Roke will have let him out before now.
And there are worse places to spend a hot afternoon in than
locked snugly in a cool storeroom.'"

"Are there?" interpolated Brice.  "I'd hate to test that."

"All in a flash.  I understood," she continued, her sweet
voice struggling gallantly against tears.  "I knew Rodney
didn't want us to have any guests or to have any outsiders at
all at our house.  He was fearfully displeased with us last
night for having you there.  It was all we could do to
persuade him that the man who had saved Milo's life couldn't
be turned out of doors or left to look elsewhere for work.  It
was only when Milo promised to give you work at the key that
he stopped arguing and being so imperative about it.  And when
I heard him speak just now about your being locked in a store
room there.  I knew he had done it to prevent your coming back
here for a while."

"Your reasoning was most unfeminine in its correctness,"
approved Gavin, still forcing himself to resist the piteous
pleading in her voice.

He could see her flinch under the harshness of his tone as she
added:

"And all at once I realized what it must mean to you and what
you must think of us--after all you'd done for Milo.  And I
knew how a beast like Roke would be likely to treat you when
he knew my brother and Rodney had left you there at the mercy
of his companionship.  There was no use talking to them.  It
might be hours before I could convince them and make them go
or send for you.  And I couldn't bear to have you kept there
all that time.  So I slipped out of the house and ran to the
landing.  Just as I got out into the bay.  I saw you coming
through that strait back there.  I recognized the fruit
launch.  And I knew it must be you.  For nobody from the key
would have run at such speed toward that clump of reefs.  You
capsized before I could get to you, and--"


She shuddered, and ceased to speak.  For another moment or two
there was silence between them.  Gavin Brice's mind was busy
with all she said.  He was dissecting and analyzing her every
anxious word.  He was bringing to bear on the matter not only
his trained powers of logic but his knowledge of human nature.

And all at once he knew this trembling girl was in no way
guilty of the crime attempted against him.  He knew, too, from
the speech of Hade's which she had just repeated, that
Standish presumably had had no part in the attempted murder,
but that that detail had been devised by Hade for Roke to put
into execution.  Nor, evidently had Davy been let into the
secret by Roke.

In a few seconds Brice had revised his ideas as to the
afternoon's adventures, and had come to a sudden decision.
Speaking with careful forethought and with a definite object
in view, he said:

"Miss Standish.  I do not ask pardon for the way I spoke to
you just now.  And when you've heard why you won't blame me,
I want to tell you just what happened to me today from the
time I set foot on Roustabout Key, until I boarded this boat
of yours.  When you realize that I thought your brother and
probably yourself were involved in it to the full you'll
understand, perhaps, why I didn't greet you with overmuch
cordiality.  Will you listen?"

She nodded her head, wordless, not trusting her voice to speak
further.  And she sank back into the seat she had quitted.
Brice seated himself on the thwart near her, and began to
speak, while the boat, its power still shut off bobbed lazily
on a lazier sea.

Tersely, yet omitting no detail except that of his talk with
Davy, he told of the afternoon's events.  She heard, wide-eyed
and breathing fast.  But she made no interruption, except when
he came to the episode of the moccasins she cried aloud in
horror, and caught unconsciously his lacerated hand between
her own warm palms.

The clasp of her fingers, unintentional as it was, sent a
strange thrill through the man, and, for an instant, he
wavered in his recital.  But he forced himself to continue.
And after a few seconds the girl seemed to realize what she
was doing.  For she withdrew her hands swiftly, and clasped
them together in her lap.

As he neared the end of his brief story she raised her hands
again.  But they did not seek his.  Instead she covered her
horrified eyes with them, and she shook all over.

When he had finished he could see she was fighting for
self-control.  Then, in a flood, the power of speech came back
to her.

"Oh!" she gasped, her flower-face white and drawn,
in the faint light.  "Oh, it can't be.  It can't!  There must
be a hideous mistake somewhere!"

"There is," he agreed, with a momentary return to his former
manner.  "There was one mistake.  I made it, by escaping.
Otherwise the plan was flawless.  Luckily, a key had been
left on the floor.  And luckily, I got hold of it.  Luckily,
too, I had a match with me.  And, if there are sharks as near
land as this, luckily you happened to meet me as I was
swimming for shore.  As to mistakes--.  Have you a
flashlight?"

From her pocket she drew a small electric torch she had had
the foresight to pick up from the hall table as she ran out.
Gavin took it and turned its rays on his wet ankles.  His
shoes and trouser-legs still showed clear signs of the
scorching they had received.  And his palms were cut and
abraded.

"If I had wanted to make up a story," said he.  "I could have
devised one that didn't call for such painful stage-setting."

"Oh, don't!" she begged.  "Don't speak so flippantly of it!
How can you?  And don't think for one instant, that I doubted
your word.  I didn't.  But it didn't seem possible that such a
thing--Mr. Brice!" she broke off earnestly.  "You mustn't--you
can't--think that Milo knew anything of this!  I mean
about the--the snakes and all.  He is enough to blame--he has
shamed our hospitality and every trace of gratitude enough--by
letting you be locked in there at all and by consenting to
have you marooned on the key.  I'm not trying to excuse him
for that.  There's no excuse.  And without proof I wouldn't
have believed it of him.  But at least you must believe he had
no part in--in the other--"

"I do believe it," said Gavin, gently, touched to the heart
by her grief and shame.  "At first, I was certain he had
connived at it.  But what you overheard proves he didn't."

"Thank you," she said simply.

This time it was his hand that sought hers.  And, even as she,
he was unconscious of the action.

"You mustn't let this distress you so," he soothed, noting
her effort to fight back the tears.  "It all came out safely
enough.  But--I think I've paid to-day for my right to ask
such a question--how does it happen that you and your
brother--you, especially--can have sunk to such straits that
you take orders meekly from a murderer like Rodney Hade, and
that you let him dictate what guests you shall or shan't
receive?"

She shivered all over.

"I--I have no right to tell you," she murmured.  "It isn't my
secret.  I have no right to say there is any secret.  But
there is!  And it is making my life a torture!  If only you
knew--if only there were some one I could turn to for help or
even for advice!  But I'm all alone, except for Milo.  And
lately he's changed so!  I--"

She broke down all at once in her valiant attempt at
calmness.  And burying her face in her hands again  she burst
into a tempest of weeping.  Gavin Brice, a lump in his own
throat, drew her to him.  And she clung to his soaked coat
lapels hiding her head on his drenched breast.

There was nothing of love or of sex in the action.  She was
simply a heartbroken child seeking refuge in the strength of
some one older and stronger than she.  Gavin realized it, and
he held her to him and comforted her as though she had been
his little sister.

Presently the passion of convulsive weeping passed, leaving
her broken and exhausted.  Gavin knew the girl's powers of
mental resistance were no longer strong enough to overcome her
need for a comforter to whom she could unburden her soul of
its miserable perplexities.

She had drawn back from his embrace but she still sat close to
him, her hands in his, pathetically eager for his sympathy and
aid.  The psychological moment had come and Gavin Brice knew
it.  Loathing himself for the role he must play and vowing
solemnly to his own heart that she should never be allowed to
suffer for any revelation she might make, he said with a
gentle insistence, "Tell me."



CHAPTER VII

SECRETS


There was a short silence.  Brice looked anxiously through the
gathering darkness at the dimly seen face so near to his own.
He could not guess, for the life of him, whether the girl was
silent because she refused to tell him what he sought so
eagerly to know, or whether she was still fighting to control
her voice.

As he sat gazing down at her, there was something so tiny, so
fragile, so helplessly trustful about her, that it went
straight to the man's heart.  He had played and schemed and
risked life itself for this crucial hour, for this hour when
he should have swept aside the girl's possible suspicions and
enlisted her complete sympathy for himself and could make her
trust him and feel keen remorse for the treatment he had
received.

Yes--he had achieved all this.  And he had done infinitely
more.  He had awakened in her heart a sense of loneliness and
of need for some one in whom she might confide.

He had done all this, had Gavin Brice.  And, though he was
not a vain man, yet he knew he had done it cleverly.  But,
somehow--even as he waited to see if the hour for full
confidences were indeed ripe--he was not able to feel the thrill
of exultation which should belong to the winner of a hard-fought
duel.  Instead, to his amazement, he was aware of a growing sense
of shame, of disgust at having used such weapons against any
woman,--especially against this girl whose whiteness of soul and of
purpose he could no longer doubt.

Then, through the silence and above the soft lap-lap-lap of
water against the idly drifting boat's side, Claire drew a
deep breath.  She threw back her drooping shoulders and sat
up, facing the man.  And in the dusk, Gavin could see the
flash of resolve in her great eyes.

"Yes!" she said, impulsively.  "Yes.  I'll tell you.  If it
is wrong for me to tell, then let it be wrong.  I'm sick of
mystery and secrets and signals and suspense, and--oh, I'm
sick of it all!  And it's--it's splendid of you to want to
help me, after what has happened to you through meeting me!
It's your right to know."

She paused for breath.  And again Gavin wondered at his own
inability to feel a single throb of gladness at having come so
triumphantly to the end of this particular road.  Glumly, he
stared down at the vibrant little figure beside him.

"There is some of it I don't know, myself," she began.  "And
lately I've found myself wondering if all I really know is
true, or whether they have been deceiving me about some of it.
I have no right to feel that way, I suppose, about my own
brother.  But he's so horribly under Rodney Hade's influence,
and--"

Again, she paused, seeming to realize she was wandering from
the point.  And she made a fresh start.

"It all began as an adventure, a sort of game, more than in
earnest," she said.  "At least, looking back, that's the way
it seems to me now.  As a wonderfully exciting game.  You see,
everything down here was so thrillingly exciting and
interesting to me, even then."

"I see."

"If you don't mind," she added, "I think I can make you
understand it all the better, if you'll let me go back to the
beginning.  I'll make it as short as I can."

"Yes."

"I had been brought up in New York, except when we were in
Europe or when I was away at school.  My father and mother
never let me see or know anything of real life.  Dad was old,
even as far back as I can remember.  Mother was his second
wife.  Milo's mother was his first wife, and she died ever so
long ago.  Milo is twenty years older than I am.  Milo came
down here on a cruise, when he got out of college.  And he
fell in love with this part of the country.  He persuaded Dad
to buy him a farm here, and he has spent fifteen years in
building it up to what it is now.  He and my mother didn't
didn't get on awfully well together.  So Milo spent about all
his time down here, and I hardly ever saw him.  Then Dad and
Mother died, within a day of each other, during the flu
epidemic.  And Milo came on, for the funeral, of course, and
to wind up the estate.  Then he wanted me to come down here
and live with him.  He said he was lonely.  And I was still
lonelier.

"I came here.  And I've been here ever since.  It is a part of
the world that throws a charm around every one who stays long
enough under its spell.  And I grew to loving it as much as
Milo did.  We had a beautiful life here, he and I and the
cordial, lovable people who became our friends.  It was last
spring that Rodney Hade came to see us.  Milo had known him,
slightly, down here, years ago.  He came back here--nobody
knows from where, and rented a house, the other side of
Coconut Grove, and brought his yacht down to Miami Harbor.
Almost right away, he seemed to gain the queerest influence
over Milo.  It was almost like hypnotism.  And yet, I don't
altogether wonder.  He has an odd sort of fascination about
him.  Even when he is discussing his snakes."

"His snakes?"

"He has three rooms in his house fitted up as a reptile zoo.
He collects them from everywhere.  He says--and he seems to
believe it--that they won't hurt him and that he can handle
them as safely as if they were kittens.  Just like that man
they used to have in the post office up at Orlando, who used
to sit with his arms full of rattlesnakes and moccasins, and
pet them."

"Yes," said Gavin, absentmindedly, as he struggled against an
almost overmastering impulse which was gripping him.  "I
remember.  But at last one of his pets killed him.  He--"

"How did you know?" she asked, surprised.  "How in the world
should a newcomer from the North know about--"

"Oh, I read it in a Florida dispatch to one of the New York
papers," he said, impatient at his own blunder.  "And it was
such a strange story it stuck in my memory.  It--"

"Well," resumed Claire, "I think I've made you  understand the
simple and natural things that led up to  it all.  And now,
I'll tell you everything, at least  everything I know about
it.  It's--it's a gruesome sort  of story, and--and I've grown
to hate it all so!"  She quivered.  Then, squaring her young
shoulders again, she continued:

"I don't ask you to believe what I'm going to tell you.  But
it's all true.  It began this way:

"One night, six months ago, as Milo and I were sitting on the
veranda, we heard a scream--a hideous sound it was--from the
mangrove swamp.  And a queer creature in drippy white came
crawling out of--"

"Wait!"

Brice's monosyllable smashed into the current of her
scarce-started narrative with the jarring suddenness of a
pistol shot.  She stared up at him in amaze.  For, seen
through the starlight, his face was working strangely.  And
his voice was vibrant with some mighty emotion.

"Wait!" he repeated.  "You shan't go on.  You shan't tell me
the rest.  I'm a fool.  For I'm throwing away the best chance
that could have come to me.  I'm throwing it away with my eyes
open, and because I'm a fool."

"I--I don't understand," she faltered, bewildered.

"No," he said roughly.  "You don't understand.  That's just
why I can't let you go on.  And, because I'm a fool, I can't
play out this hand, where every card is mine.  I'll despise
myself, always, for this, I suppose.  And it's a certainty
that I'll be despised.  It means an end to a career I found
tremendously interesting.  I didn't need the money it brought.
But I--"

"What in the world are you talking about?" she demanded,
drawing a little away from him.  "I--"

"Listen," he interrupted.  "A lot of men, in my line and in
others, have come a cropper in their careers, because of some
woman.  But I'm the first to come such a cropper on account of
a woman with a white soul and the eyes of a child,--a woman I
scarcely know, and who has no interest in me.  But, to-night,
I shall telegraph my resignation.  Some saner man can take
charge.  There are enough of our men massed in this vicinity
to choose from.  I'm going to get out of Florida and leave the
game to play itself to an end, without me.  I'm an idiot to do
it.  But I'd be worse than an idiot to let you trust me and
let you tell me things that would wreck your half-brother and
bring sorrow and shame to you.  I'm through!  And I can't even
be sorry."

"Mr. Brice," she said, gently, "I'm afraid your terrible
experiences, this afternoon and last evening, have unsettled
your mind, a little.  Just sit still there, and rest.  I am
going to run the boat to shore and--"

"You're right," he laughed, ruefully, as he made way for her
to start the engine.  "My experiences have 'unsettled' my
mind.  And now that I've spoiled my own game, I'll tell you
the rest--as much of it as I have a right to.  It doesn't
matter, any longer.  Hade knows--or at least suspects.
That's why he tried to get me killed.  In this century, people
don't try to have others killed, just for fun.  There's got to
be a powerful motive behind it.  Such a motive as made a man
last evening try to knife your half-brother.  Such a motive as
induced Hade to get me out of the way.  He knows.  Or he
suspects.  And that means the crisis must come, almost at
once.  The net will close.  Whether or not it catches him in
it."

The boat was started and had gotten slowly under way.  During
its long idleness it had been borne some distance to
southwestward by tide and breeze.  Her work done, Claire
turned again to Gavin.

"Don't try to talk," she begged--as she had begged him on the
night before.  "Just sit back and rest."

"Even now, you don't get an inkling of it," he murmured.
"That shows how little they've taken you into their confidence.
They warned you against any one who might find the hidden path,
and they even armed you for such an emergency.  Yet they never
told you the Law might possibly be crouching to spring on the
Standish place, quite as ferociously as those other people who
are in the secret and who want to rob Standish and Hade of the
loot!  And, by the way," he went on, pettishly, still smarting
under his own renunciation, "tell Hade with my compliments that
if he had lived as long in Southern Florida as I have, he'd know
mocking birds don't sing here in mid-February, and he'd devise
some other signal to use when he comes ashore by way of that
path and wants to know if the coast is clear."

And now, forgetful of the shadowy course wherewith she was
guiding the boat toward the distant dock--forgetful of
everything--she dropped her hand from the steering wheel and
turned about, in crass astonishment, to gaze at him.

"What--what do you mean?" she queried.  "You know about the
signal?--You--?"

"I know far too little about any of the whole crooked
business!" he retorted, still enraged at his own quixotic
resolve.  "That's what I was sent here to clean up, after a
dozen others failed.  That's what I was put in charge of this
district for.  That's what I could have found out--or seventy
per cent of it--if I'd had the sense not to stop you when you
started to tell me, just now."

"Mr. Brice," she said, utterly confused, "I don't understand
you at all.  At first I was afraid that blow on the head, and
then this afternoon's terrible experiences, had turned your
wits.  But you don't talk like a man who is delirious or sick.
And there are things you couldn't possibly know--that signal,
for instance--if you were what you seemed to be.  You made me
think you were a stranger in Florida,--that you were down
here, penniless and out of work.  Yet now you speak about some
mysterious 'job' that you are giving up.  It's all such a
tangle!  I can't understand."

Brice tried to ignore the pitiful pleading--the childlike
tremor in her sweet voice.  But it cut to the soul of him.
And he replied, brusquely:

"I let you think I was a dead-broke work-hunter.  I did that,
because I needed to get into your brother's house, to make
certain of things which we suspected but couldn't quite prove.
I am the ninth man, in the past two months, to try to get in
there.  And I'm the second to succeed.  The first couldn't
find out anything of use.  He could only confirm some of our
ideas.  That's the sort of a man he is.  A fine subordinate,
but with no genius for anything else except to obey orders.  I
was the only one of the nine, with brains, who could win any
foothold there.  And now I'm throwing away all I gained,
because one girl happens to be too much of a child (or of a
saint) for me to lie to!  I've reason to be proud of myself,
haven't I?"

"Who are you?" she asked, dully bewildered under his fierce
tirade of self-contempt.  "Who are you?  What are you?"

"I'm Gavin Brice," he said.  "As I told you.  But I'm also a
United States Secret Service official--which I didn't tell
you."

"No!" she stammered, shrinking back.  "Oh, no!"

He continued, briskly:

"Your brother, and your snake-loving friend Rodney Hade, are
working a pretty trick on Uncle Sam.  And the Federal
Government has been trying to block it for the past few
months.  There are plenty of us down here, just now.  But, up
to lately, nothing's been accomplished.  That's why they sent
me.  They knew I'd had plenty of experience in this region."

"Here?  In Florida?  But--"

"I spent all my vacations at my grandfather's place, below
Coconut Grove, when I was in school and in college and for a
while afterward, and I know this coast and the keys as well as
any outsider can,--even if I was silly enough to let my scow
run into a reef to-night, that wasn't here in my day.  They
sent me to take charge of the job and to straighten out its
mixups and to try to win where the others had bungled.  I was
doing it, too,--and it would have been a big feather in my
cap, at Washington, when my good sense went to pieces on a
reef named Claire Standish,--a reef I hadn't counted on, any
more than I counted on the reef that stove in my scow, an hour
ago."

She strove to speak.  The words died in her parched throat.
Brice went on:

"I've always bragged that I'm woman-proof.  I'm not.  No man
is.  I hadn't met the right woman.  That was all.  If you'd
been of the vampire type or the ordinary kind, I could have
gone on with it, without turning a hair.  If you'd been mixed
up in any of the criminal part of it at all--as I and all of
us supposed you must be--I'd have had no scruples about using
any information I could get from you.  But--well, tonight, out
here, all at once I understood what I'd been denying to myself
ever since I met you.  And I couldn't go on with it.  You'll
be certain to suffer from it, in any case.  But I'm strong
enough at the Department to persuade them you're innocent.
I--"

"Do you mean," she stammered, incredulously, finding hesitant
words at last, "Do you mean you're a--a spy?  That you came to
our house--that you ate our bread--with the idea of learning
secrets that might injure us?  That you--?  Oh!" she burst
forth in swift revulsion, "I didn't know any one could be
so--so vile!  I--"

"Wait!" he commanded, sharply, wincing nevertheless under the
sick scorn in her voice and words.  "You have no right to say
that.  I am not a spy.  Or if I am, then every police officer
and every detective and every cross-examining lawyer is a spy!
I am an official in the United States Secret Service.  I, and
others like me, try to guard the welfare of our country and to
expose or thwart persons who are that country's enemies or who
are working to injure its interests.  If that is being a spy,
then I'm content to be one.  I--"

"If you are driven to such despicable work by poverty," she
said, unconsciously seeking excuse for him, "if it is the only
trade you know--then I suppose you can't help--"

"No," he said, unwilling to let her gain even this false
impression.  "My grandfather, who brought me up--who owned the
place I spoke of, near Coconut Grove--left me enough to live
on in pretty fair comfort.  I could have been an idler if I
chose.  I didn't choose.  I wanted work.  And I wanted
adventure.  That was why I went into the Secret Service.  I
stayed in it till I went overseas, and I came back to it after
the war.  I wasn't driven into it by poverty.  It's an
honorable profession.  There are hundreds of honorable men in
it.  You probably know some of them.  They are in all walks of
life, from Fifth Avenue to the slums.  They are working
patriotically for the welfare of the land they love, and they
are working for pitifully small reward.  It is not like the
Secret Service of Germany or of oldtime Russia.  It upholds
Democracy, not Tyranny.  And I'm proud to be a member of it.
At least, I was.  Now, there is nothing left to me but to
resign.  It--"

"You haven't even the excuse of poverty!" she exclaimed,
confusedly.  "And you have not even the grace to feel ashamed
for--for your black ingratitude in tricking us into giving you
shelter and--"

"I think I paid my bill for that, to some slight extent," was
his dry rejoinder.  "But for my 'trickery,' your half-brother
would be dead, by now.  As for 'ingratitude,' how about the
trick he served me, today?  Even if he didn't know Hade had
smuggled across a bagful of his pet moccasins to Roke, yet he
let me be trapped into that--"

"It's only in the Devil's Ledger, that two wrongs make a
right!" she flamed.  "I grant my brother treated you
abominably.  But his excuse was that your presence might ruin
his great ambition in life.  Your only excuse for doing what
you have done is the--the foul instinct of the man-hunt.
The--"

"The criminal-hunt," he corrected her, trying not to writhe
under her hot contempt.  "The enemy-to-man hunt, if you like.
Your half-brother--"

"My brother is not a criminal!" she cried, furiously.  "You have
no right to say so.  He has committed no crime.  He has broken no
law."

Again he looked down, searchingly, into her angry little face,
as it confronted him so fiercely in the starlight.  And he
knew she was sincere.

"Miss Standish," he said, slowly.  "You believe you are
telling the truth.  Your half-brother understood you too well
to let you know what he was really up to.  He and Hade
concocted some story--I don't know what--to explain to you the
odd things going on in and around your home.  You are
innocent.  And you are ignorant.  It cuts me like a knife to
have to open your eyes to all this.  But, in a very few days,
at most, you are bound to know."

"If you think I'll believe a word against my brother--especially
from a self-confessed spy--"

"No?" said Gavin.  "And you're just as sure of Rodney Hade's
noble uprightness as of your brother's?"


"I'm not defending Rodney Hade," said Claire.  "He is nothing
to me, one way or the other.  He--"

"Pardon me," interposed Brice.  "He is a great deal to you.
You hate him and you are in mortal fear of him."

"If you spied that out, too--"

"I did," he admitted.  "I did it, in the half-minute I saw you
and him together, last evening.  I saw a look in your eyes--I
heard a tone in your voice--as you turned to introduce me to
him--that told me all I needed to know.  And, incidentally, it
made me want to smash him.  Apart from that--well, the
Department knows a good deal about Rodney Hade.  And it
suspects a great deal more.  It knows, among minor things,
that he schemed to make Milo Standish plunge so heavily on
certain worthless stocks that Standish went broke and in
desperation raised a check of Hade's (and did it rather badly,
as Hade had foreseen he would, when he set the trap)--in order
to cover his margins.  It--"

"No!" she cried, in wrathful refusal to believe.  "That is not
true.  It can't be true!  It is a--"

"Hade holds a mortgage on everything Standish owns," resumed
Brice, "and he has held that raised check over him as a
prison-menace.  He--"

"Stop!" demanded Claire, ablaze with righteous indignation.
"If you have such charges to make against my brother, are you
too much of a coward to come to his house with me, now, and
make them to his face?  Are you?"

"No," he said, without a trace of unwillingness or of bravado.
"I am not.  I'll go there, with you, gladly.  In the meantime--"

"In the meantime," she caught him up, "please don't speak to
me.  And please sit in the other end of the boat, if you don't
mind.  The air will be easier to breathe if--"

"Certainly," he assented, making his way to the far end of the
launch, while she seized the neglected steering wheel again.
"And I am sorrier than I can say, that I have had to tell you
all this.  If it were not that you must know it, soon, anyway,
I'd have bitten my tongue out, sooner than make you so
unhappy.  Please believe that, won't you?"

There was an earnest depth of contrition in his voice that
checked the icy retort she had been about to make.  And,
emboldened by her silence, he went on:

"Hade needed your brother and the use of your brother's house
and land.  He needed them, imperatively, for the scheme he was
trying to swing ....  That was why he got Standish into his
power, in the first place.  That was why he forced or wheedled
him into this partnership.  The Standish house was built, in
its original form, more than a hundred years ago.  In the days
when Dade County and all this end of Florida were in hourly
dread of Seminole raids from the Everglade country, and where
every settler's house must be not only his castle, but--"

"I'm sorry to have to remind you," she broke in, freezingly,
"that I asked you not to speak to me.  Surely you can have at
least that much chivalry,--when I am helpless to get out of
hearing from you.  You say you are willing to confront my
brother with, this--this--ridiculous charge.  Very well.  Till
then, I hope you won't--"

"All right," he said, gloomily.  "And I don't blame you.  I'm
a bungler, when it comes to saying things to women.  I don't
know so very much about them.  I've read that no man really
understands women.  And certainly I don't.  By the way, the
boat's run opposite that spit of beach at the bottom of your
mangrove swamp.  If you're in a hurry, you can land there, and
we can go to the house by way of the hidden path.  It will cut
off a mile or so.  You have a flashlight.  So--"

He let his voice trail away, frozen to silence by the rigidly
hostile little figure outlined at the other end of the boat by
the tumble of phosphorus in their wake.

Claire roused herself, from a gloomy reverie, enough to shift
the course of the craft and to head it for the dim-seen
sandspit that was backed by the ebony darkness of the mangrove
swamp.

Neither of them spoke again, until, with a swishing sound and
a soft grate of the light-draught boat, the keel clove its way
into the offshore sand and the craft came to coughing halt
twenty feet from land.

Claire roused herself, from a gloomy reverie in which she had
fallen.  Subconsciously, she had accepted the man's suggestion
that they take the short cut.  And she had steered thither,
forgetful that there was no dock and no suitable landing place
for even so light a boat anywhere along the patch of sandy
foreshore.

Now, fast aground, she saw her absent-minded error.  And she
jumped to her feet, vainly reversing the engine in an effort
to back free of the sand wherein the prow had wedged itself so
tightly.  But Gavin Brice had already taken charge of the
situation.

Stepping overside into the shallow water, he picked up the
astounded and vainly protesting girl, bodily, holding her
close to him with one arm, while, with his free hand he caught
the painter and dragged the boat behind him into water too low
for it to float off until the change of tide.

It was the work of a bare ten seconds, from the time he
stepped into the shallows until he had brought Claire to the
dry sand of the beach.

"Set me down!" she was demanding sternly, for the third time,
as she struggled with futile repugnance to slip from his
gently firm grip.  "I--"

"Certainly," acquiesced Gavin, lowering her to the sand, and
steadying her for an instant, until her feet could find their
balance.  "Only please don't glare at me as though I had
struck you.  I didn't think you'd want to get those little
white shoes of yours all wet.  So I took the liberty of
carrying you.  My own shoes, and all the rest of me, are
drenched beyond cure anyhow.  So another bit of immersion
didn't do me any harm."

He spoke in a careless, matter-of-fact manner, and as he
talked he was leading the way up the short beach, toward the
northernmost edge of the mangrove swamp.  Claire could not
well take further offence at a service which apparently had
been rendered to her out of the merest common politeness.  So,
after another icy look at his unconscious back, she followed
wordlessly in Brice's wake.

Now that he was on dry land again and on his way to the house
where, at the very least, a stormy scene might be expected,
the man's spirits seemed to rise, almost boyishly.  The blood
was running again through his veins.  The cool night air was
drying his soaked clothes.  The prospect of possible adventure
stirred him.

Blithely he sought the shoreward entrance to the hidden path,
by the mental notes he had made of its exact whereabouts when
Bobby Burns had happened upon its secret.  And, in another
half-minute he had drawn aside the screen of growing boughs
and was standing aside for Claire to enter the path.

"You see," he explained, impersonally, "this path is a very
nice little mystery.  But, like most mysteries, it is quite
simple, when once you know your way in and out of it.  I knew
where it was when I was a kid, but I couldn't remember the
spot where it came out here.  Back yonder, a bit to northward,
I came upon Roke, yesterday.  I gather he had been visiting
your house or Hade's, by way of the hidden path, and was on
his way back to his boat, to return to Roustabout Key, when he
happened upon Bobby Burns--and then on me.  He must have
wondered where I vanished to.  For he couldn't have seen me
enter the path.  Maybe he mentioned that to Hade, too, this
afternoon.  If Hade thought I knew the path, he'd think I knew
a good deal more ....  By the way," he added, to the
ostentatiously unlistening Claire, "that's the second time
you've stumbled.  And both times, you were too far ahead for
me to catch you.  This is the best part of the path, too--the
straightest and the least dark part.  If we stumble here,
we'll tumble, farther on, unless you use that flashlight of
yours.  May I trouble you to--?"

"I forgot," she said stiffly, as she drew the torch from her
pocket and pressed its button.

The dense black of the swamp was split by the light's white
sword, and softer beams from its sharp radiance illumined the
pitch-dark gloom for a few yards to either side of the
tortuous path.  The shadows of the man and the woman were cast
in monstrous grotesquely floating shapes behind them as they
moved forward.

"This is a cheery rambling-place," commented Gavin.  "I wonder
if you know its history?  I mean, of course, before Standish
had it recut and jacked up and bridged, and all that?  This
path dates back to the house's first owners--in the Seminole
days I was telling you about.  They made it as a quick
getaway, to the water, in case a war-party of Seminoles should
drop in on them from the Everglades.  I came through here,
once--oh, it must be twenty years ago--I was a school-kid, at
the time.  An old Seminole chief, with the picturesque Indian
name of Aleck, showed it to me.  His dad once cut off a party
of refugees, somewhere along here, on their way to the sea,
and deleted them.  Several of the modern Seminoles knew the
path, he said.  But almost no white men ....  Get that queer
odor, and that flapping sound over to the left?  That was a
'gator.  And he seems to be fairly big and alive, from the
racket he made.  Lucky we're on the path and not in the
undergrowth or the water!"

He talked on, as though not in the least concerned as to
whether or not she might hear or heed.  And, awed by the
gruesome stillness and gloom of the place, Claire had not the
heart to bid him be silent.  Any sound was better, she told
herself, than the dead noiselessness of the surrounding
forest.

"That's the tenth mosquito I've missed," cheerily resumed
Brice, slapping futilely at his own cheek.  "In the old days,
they used to infest Miami.  Now they're driven back into the
swamps.  But they seem just as industrious as ever, and every
bit as hungry.  It must be grand to have such an appetite."

As Claire disregarded this flippancy, he fell silent  for a
space, and together they moved on, through the thick of the
swamp.  Then:

"There's something I've been trying to figure out," he
recommenced, speaking more to himself than to Claire.  "There
must be some sort of sense to all the signaling Hade does when
he comes out of this swamp, onto your lawn.  If it was only
that he doesn't want casual visitors to know he has come that
way, he could just as well go around by the road to the south
of the swamp, and come openly to the house, by the front.
And, if things are to be moved to or from the house, they
could go by road, at night, as well as through here.  There
must be something more to it all.  And, I have an idea I know
what it is ....  That enclosed space, with the high palings
and the vines all over it, to the north of your house, I think
you said that was a little walled orchard where Standish is
experimenting on some 'ideal' orange, and that he is so
jealous of the secret process that he won't even let you set
foot in it.  The funny part of it is:--"

He stopped short.  Claire had been walking a few yards in
advance, and they had come out on the widest part of the
trail, about midway through the woods.  To one side of the
beaten path was a tiny clearing.  This clearing was strewn
thick with a tangle of fallen undergrowth, scarce two feet
high at most.

And they reached it, the girl gave a little cry of fright and
stepped back, her hands reaching blindly
toward Gavin, as if for support or comfort.  The gesture
caused her to drop the flashlight.  Its button was "set
forward," so it did not go out as it fell.  Instead, it rolled
in a semi-circle, casting its ray momentarily in a wide
irregular arc as it revolved.  Then it came to a stop, against
an outcrop of coral, with a force that put its sensitive bulb
permanently out of business.

But, during that brief circular roll of the light, Gavin Brice
caught the most fleeting glimpse of the sight that had caused
Claire to cry out and shrink back against him.

He had seen, for the merest fraction of a second, the upper
half of a man's body--thickset and hairy,--upright, on a level
with the ground, as though it had been cut in two and the
legless trunk set up there.

By the time Brice's eyes could focus fairly upon this very
impossible sight, the half-body had begun to recede rapidly
into the earth, like that of an anglework which a robin pulls
halfway out of the lawn and then loses its grip on.

In practically the same instant, the rolling ray of light
moved past the amazing spectacle, and less than a second later
bumped against the fragment of coral--the bump which smashed
its bulb and left the two wanderers in total darkness for the
remainder of their strange pilgrimage.

Claire, momentarily unstrung, caught Gavin by the arm and
clung to him.  He could feel the shudder of her slender body
as it pressed to his side for protection.

"What--what was it?" she whispered, tremblingly.  "What was
it?  Did I really see it?  It it couldn't be!  It looked--it
looked like a--a body that had been cut in half--and--and--"

"It's all right," he whispered, reassuringly, passing his arm
unchidden about her slight waist.  "Don't be frightened, dear!
It wasn't a man cut in half.  It was the upper half of a man
who was wiggling down into a tunnel hidden by that smother of
underbrush ....  And here I was just wondering why people
should bother to come all the way through this path, instead
of skirting the woods!  Answers furnished while you wait!"

Before he spoke, however, he had strained his ears to listen.
And the quick receding and then cessation of the sound of the
scrambling body in the tunnel had told him the seen half and
the unseen half of the intruder had alike vanished beyond
earshot, far under ground.

"But what--?" began the frightened girl.

Then she realized for the first time that she was holding fast
to the man whom she had forbidden to speak to her.  And she
relinquished her tight clasp on his arm.

"Stand where you are, a minute," he directed.  "He's gone.
There's no danger.  He was as afraid of us as you were of him.
He ducked, like a mud-turtle, as soon as he saw we weren't the
people he expected.  Stay here, please.  And face this way.
That's the direction we were going in, and we don't want to
get turned around.  I've got to crawl about on all fours for a
while, in the merry quest of the flashlight.  I know just
about where it stopped."

She could hear him groping amid the looser undergrowth.  Then
he got to his feet.

"Here it is," he reported.  "But it wasn't worth hunting for.
The bulb's gone bad.  We'll have to walk the rest of the way
by faith.  Would you mind, very much, taking my arm?  The
path's wide enough for that, from here on.  It needn't imply
that you've condoned anything I said to you, out yonder in the
boat, you know.  But it may save you from a stumble.  I'm
fairly sure-footed.  And I'm used to this sort of travel."

Meekly, she obeyed, wondering at her own queer sense of peace
under the protection of this man whom she told herself she
detested.  The wiry strength of the arm, around which her
white fingers closed so confidingly, thrilled her.  Against
her will, she all at once lost her sense of repulsion and the
wrath she had been storing against him.  Nor, by her very
best efforts, could she revive her righteous displeasure.

"Mr. Brice," she said, timidly, as he guided her with swiftly
steady step through the dense blackness, "perhaps I had no
right to speak as I did.  If I did you an injustice--"

"Don't!" he bade her, cutting short her halting apology.  "You
mustn't be sorry for anything.  And I'd have bitten out my
tongue sooner than tell you the things I had to, if it weren't
that you'd have heard them, soon enough, in an even less
palatable form.  Only--won't you please try not to feel quite
as much toward me as I felt toward those snakes of Hade's,
this afternoon?  You have a right to, of course.  But well, it
makes me sorry I ever escaped from there."

The sincerity, the boyish contrition in his voice, touched
her, unaccountably.  And, on impulse, she spoke.

"I asked you to say those things about Milo, to his face," she
began, hesitantly.  "I did that, because I was angry, because I
didn't believe a word of them, and because I wanted to see you
punished for slandering my brother.  I--I still don't believe
a single word of them.  But I believe you told them to me in
good faith, and that you were misinformed by the Federal
agents who cooked up the absurd story.  And--and I don't want
to see you punished, Mr. Brice," she faltered, unconsciously
tightening her clasp on his arm.  "Milo is terribly strong.
And his temper is so quick!  He might nearly kill you.  Take
me as far as the end of the path, and then go across the lawn
to the road, instead of coming in.  Please do!"

"That is sweet of you," said Gavin, after a moment's pause,
wherein his desire to laugh struggled with a far deeper and
more potent emotion.  "But, if it's just the same to you, I'd
rather--"

"But he is double your size," she protested, "and he is as
strong as Samson.  Why, Roke, over at the Key, is said to be
the only man who ever outwrestled him!  And Roke has the
strength of a gorilla."

Gavin Brice smiled grimly to himself in the darkness, as he
recalled his own test of prowess with Roke.

"I don't think he'll hurt me overmuch," said he.  "I thank
you, just the same.  It makes me very happy to know you
aren't--"

"Mr. Brice!" she cried, in desperation.  "Unless you promise
me not to do as I dared you to--I shall not let you go a step
farther with me.  I--"

"I'm afraid you'll have to let me take you the rest of the
way, Miss Standish," he said, a sterner note in his voice
quelling her protest and setting her to wondering.  "If you
like, we can postpone my talk with Standish about the
check-raising.  But--if you care anything for him, you'd best
let me go to him as fast as we can travel."

"Why?  Is--?"

"Unless I read wrongly what we saw, back yonder in the
clearing," he said, cryptically, "your brother is in sore need
of every friend he can muster.  I had only a glimpse of our
subterranean half-man.  But there was a gash across his
eyebrow, and a mass of bruises on his throat.  If I'm not
mistaken, I put them there.  That was the man who tried to
knife Standish last evening.  And, unless I've misread the
riddle of that tunnel, we'll be lucky to get there in time.
There's trouble ahead.  All sorts of trouble."



CHAPTER VIII

THE SIEGE


"Trouble?" repeated Claire, questioningly.  "You mean--?"

"I mean I've pieced it out, partly from reports and partly
from my own deductions and from the sight of that man, back
there," said Brice.  "I may be wrong in all or in part of it.
But I don't think I am.  I figure that that chap we saw half
under ground, is one of a clique or gang that is after
something which Standish and Hade have--or that these fellows
think Hade and Standish have.  I figure they think your
brother has wronged them in some way and that they are even
more keen after him than after Hade.  That, or else they think
if they could put him out of the way, they could get the thing
they are after.  That or both reasons."

"I learned that Standish has hired special police to patrol
the main road, after dark, under plea that he's afraid tramps
might trespass on his groves.  But he didn't dare hire them to
patrol his grounds for fear of what they might chance to stumble
on.  And, naturally, he couldn't have them or any one patrol the
hidden path.  That's the reason he armed you and told you to
look out for any one coming that way.  That's why you held me
up, when I came through here, yesterday.  These must be people
you know by sight.  For you told me you took me for some one
else.  This chap, back yonder, knows the hidden path.  And now
it seems he knows the tunnel, too.  If I'm right in thinking
that tunnel leads to the secret orchard enclosure, back of
your house, then I fancy Standish may be visited during the
next half hour.  And, unless I'm mistaken, I heard more than
one set of bare feet scurrying down that tunnel just now.  Our
friend with the bashed-in face was apparently the last of
several men to slip into the tunnel, and we happened along as
he was doing it.  If he recognized you and saw you had a man
as an escort, he must know we're bound for your house.  And he
and the rest are likely to hurry to get there ahead of us.
That's why I've been walking you off your feet, in spite of
the darkness, ever since we left him."

"I--I only saw him for the tiniest part of a second," said
Claire, glancing nervously through the darkness behind her.
"And yet I'm almost sure he was a Caesar.  He--"

"A Caesar?" queried Gavin, in real perplexity.

"That's the name the Floridian fishermen give to the family
who live on Caesar's Estuary," she explained, almost
impatiently.  "The inlet that runs up into the mangroves,
south of Caesar's Rock and Caesar's Creek.  Caesar was an
oldtime pirate, you know.  These people claim to be descended
from him, and they claim squatter's rights on a tract of
marsh-and-mangrove land down there.  They call themselves all
one family, but it is more like a clan, Black Caesar's clan.
They have intermarried and others have joined them.  It's a
sort of community.  They're really little better than conchs,
though they fight any one who calls them conchs."

"But what--?"

"Oh, Milo and Rodney Hade leased some land from the
government, down there.  And that started the trouble."

Brice whistled, softly.

"I see," said he.  "I gather there had been rumors of
treasure, among the Caesars--there always are, along the
coast, here--and the Caesars hadn't the wit to find the stuff.
They wouldn't have.  But they guarded the place and always
hoped to trip over the treasure some day.  Regarded it as
their own, and all that.  'Proprietary rights' theory, passed
on from fathers to sons.  Then Standish and Hade leased the
land, having gotten a better hint as to where the treasure
was.  And that got the Caesars riled.  Then the Caesars get an
inkling that Standish and Hade have actually located the
treasure and are sneaking it to Standish's house, bit by bit.
And then they go still-hunting for the despoilers and for
their ancestral hoard."

"Why!" cried Claire, astounded.  "That's the very thing you
stopped me from telling you!  If you knew, all the time--"

"I didn't," denied Brice.  "What you said, just now, about the
Caesars, gave me the clew.  The rest was simple enough to any
one who knew of the treasure's existence.  There's one thing,
though, that puzzles me--a thing that's none of my business, of
course.  I can understand how Standish could have told you he
and Hade had stumbled onto a hatful of treasure, down there,
somewhere, among the bayous and mangrove-choked inlets.  And I
can understand how the idea of treasure hunting must have stirred
you.  But what I can't understand is this:--When Standish
found the Caesars were gunning for him, why in blue blazes did
he content himself with telling you of it?  Why didn't he send
you away, out of any possible danger?  Why didn't he insist on
your running into Miami, to the Royal Palm or some lesser
hotel, till the rumpus was all over?  Even if he didn't think
the government knew anything about the deal, he knew the
Caesars did.  And--"


"He wanted me to go to Miami," she said.  "He even wanted me
to go North.  But I wouldn't.  I was tremendously thrilled
over it all.  It was as exciting as a melodrama.  And I
insisted on staying in the thick of it.  I--I still don't see
what concern it is of the United States Government," she went
on, rebelliously, "if two men find, on their own leased land,
a cache of the plunder stolen more than a hundred years ago by
the pirate, Caesar.  It is treasure trove.  And it seems to me
they had a perfect right--"

"Have you seen any of this treasure?" interposed Brice.

"No," she admitted.  "Once or twice, bags of it have been
brought into the house, very late at night.  But Milo
explained to me it had to be taken away again, right off, for
fear of fire or thieves or--"

"And you don't know where it was taken to?"

"No.  Except that Rodney has been shipping it North.  But they
promised me that as soon--"

"I see!" he answered, as a stumble over a root cut short her
words and made her cling to him more tightly.  "You are an
ideal sister.  You'd be an ideal wife for a scoundrel.  You
would be a godsend to any one with phoney stock to sell.  Your
credulity is perfect.  And your feminine curiosity is under
lots better control than most women's.  I suppose they told
you this so-called treasure is in the form of ingots and
nuggets and pieces-of-eight and jewels-so-rich-and-rare, and
all the rest of the bag of tricks borrowed from Stevenson's
'Treasure Island'?  They would!"

She showed her disrelish for his flippant tone, by removing
her hand from his arm.  But at once the faint hiss of a snake
as it glided into the swamp from somewhere just in front of
them made her clutch his wet sleeve afresh.  His hints as to
the nature of the treasure had roused her inquisitiveness to a
keen point.  Yet, remembering what he had said about her
praiseworthy dearth of feminine curiosity, she approached the
subject in a roundabout way.

"If it isn't gold bars and jewels and old Spanish coins, and
so forth," said she, seeking to copy his bantering tone, "then
I suppose it is illicit whiskey?  It would be a sickening
anticlimax to find they were liquor-smugglers."

"No," Brice reassured her, "neither Standish nor Hade is a
bootlegger--nor anything so petty.  That's too small game for
them.  Though, in some parts of southern Florida, bootleggers
are so thick that they have to wear red buttons in their
lapels, to keep from trying to sell liquor to each other.  No,
the treasure is considerably bigger than booze or any other
form of smuggling.  It--Hello!" he broke off.  "There's your
lawn, right ahead of us.  I can see patches of starlight
through that elaborate vine-screen draped so cleverly over the
head of the path.  Now, listen, Miss Standish.  I am going to
the house.  But first I am going to see you to the main road.
That road's patroled, and it's safe from the gentle Caesars.
I want you to go there and then make your way to the nearest
neighbor's.  If there is any mixup, we'll want you as far out
of it as possible."

As he spoke, he held aside the curtain of vines, for her to
step out onto the starlit lawn.  A salvo of barking sounded
from the veranda, and Bobby Burns, who had been lying
disconsolately on the steps, came bounding across the lawn, in
rapture, at scent and step of the man he had chosen as his
god.

"Good!" muttered Brice, stooping to pat the frantically
delighted collie.  "If he was drowsing there, it's a sign no
intruders have tried to get into the house yet.  He's been
here a day.  And that's long enough for a dog like Bobby to
learn the step and the scent of the people who have a right
here and to resent any one who doesn't belong.  Now, what's
the shortest way to the main road?"

"The shortest way to the house," called the girl, over her
shoulder, "is the way I'm going now."

"But, Miss Standish!" he protested.  "Please--"

She did not answer.  As he had bent to pat the collie, she had
broken into a run, and now she was half way across the lawn,
on her way to the lighted veranda.  Vexed at her disobedience
in not taking his advice and absenting herself from impending
trouble, Gavin Brice followed.  Bobby Burns gamboled along at
his side, leaping high in the air in an effort to lick Brice's
face, setting the night astir with a fanfare of joyous
barking, imperiling Gavin's every step with his whisking body,
and in short conducting himself as does the average high-strung
collie whose master breaks into a run.

The noise brought a man out of the hallway onto the veranda,
to see the cause of the racket.  He was tall, massive, clad in
snowy white, and with a golden beard that shone in the
lamplight.  Milo Standish, as he stood thus, under the glow of
the veranda lights, was splendid target for any skulking
marksman.  Claire seemed to divine this.  For, before her
astonished brother could speak, she called to him:

"Go indoors!  Quickly, please!"

Bewildered at the odd command, yet impressed with its stark
earnestness, Milo took a wondering step backward, toward the
open doorway.  Then, at sight of the running man, just behind
his sister, he paused.  Claire's lips were parted, to repeat
her strange order, as she came up the porch steps, but Gavin,
following her, called reassuringly:

"Don't worry, Miss Standish.  They don't use guns.  They're
knifers.  The conchs have a holy horror of firearms.  Besides,
a shot might bring the road patrol.  He's perfectly safe."

As Gavin followed her up the steps and the full light of the
lamps fell on his face, Milo Standish stared stupidly at him,
in blank dismay.  Then, over his bearded face, came a look of
sharp annoyance.

"It's all right, Mr. Standish," said Gavin, reading his
thoughts as readily as spoken words.  "Don't be sore at Roke.
He didn't let me get away.  He did his best to keep me.  And
my coming back isn't as unlucky for you as it seems.  If the
snakes had gotten me, there's a Secret Service chap over there
who would have had an interesting report to make.  And you'd
have joined Hade and Roke in a murder trial.  So, you see,
things might be worse."

He spoke in his wonted lazily pleasant drawl, and with no
trace of excitement.  Yet he was studying the big man in front
of him, with covert closeness.  And the wholly uncomprehending
aspect of Milo's face, at mention of the snakes and the
possible murder charge, completed Brice's faith in Standish's
innocence of the trick's worst features.


Claire had seized her brother's hand and was drawing the
dumfounded Milo after her into the hallway.  And as she went
she burst forth vehemently into the story of Brice's afternoon
adventures.  Her words fairly fell over one another, in her
indignant eagerness.  Yet she spoke wellnigh as concisely as
had Gavin when he had recounted the tale to her.

Standish's face, as she spoke, was foolishly vacant.  Then, a
lurid blaze began to flicker behind his ice-blue eyes, and a
brickish color surged into his face.  Wheeling on Gavin, he
cried, his voice choked and hoarse:

"If this crazy yarn is true, Brice, I swear to God I had no
knowledge or part in it!  And if it's true, the man who did it
shall--"

"That can wait," put in Brice, incisively.  "I only let her
waste time by telling it, to see how it would hit you and if
you were the sort who is worth saving.  You are.  The Caesar
crowd has found where the tunnel-opening is,--the masked
opening, back in the path.  And the last of them is on his way
here, underground.  The tunnel comes out, I suppose, in that
high-fenced enclosure behind the house, the enclosure with the
vines all over it and the queer little old coral kiosk in the
center, with the rusty iron door.  The kiosk that had three
bulging canvas bags piled alongside its entrance, this
morning,--probably the night's haul from the Caesar's Estuary
cache, waiting for Hade to get a chance to run it North.
Well, a bunch of the Caesars are either in that enclosure by
now, or forcing a way out through the rusty old rattletrap
door of the kiosk.  They--"

"The Caesars?" babbled Standish.  "What what 'kiosk' are you
talking about?--I--That's a plantation for--"

"Shut up!" interrupted Brice, annoyed by the pitiful attempt
to cling to a revealed secret.  "The time for bluffing is
past, man!  The whole game is up.  You'll be lucky to escape a
prison term, even if you get out of to-night's mess.  That's
what I'm here for.  Barricade the house, first of all.  I
noticed you have iron shutters on the windows, and that
they're new.  You must have been looking for something like
this to happen, some day."

As he spoke, Brice had been moving swiftly from one window to
another, of the rooms opening out from the hallway, shutting
and barring the metal blinds.  Claire, following his example,
had run from window to window, aiding him in his
self-appointed task of barricading the ground floor.  Milo
alone stood inert and dazed, gaping dully at the two busy
toilers.  Then, dazedly, he stumbled to the front door and
pushed it shut, fumbling with its bolts.  As in a drunken
dream he mumbled:

"Three canvas bags, piled--?"

"Yes," answered Brice busily, as he clamped shut a long French
window leading out onto the veranda, and at the same time
tried to keep Bobby Burns from getting too much in his way.
"Three of them.  I gather that Hade had taken them up to the
path in his yacht's gaudy little motorboat and carried them to
the tunnel.  I suppose you have some sort of runway or hand
car or something in the tunnel to make the transportation
easier than lugging the stuff along the whole length of
stumbly path, besides being safer from view.  I suppose, too,
he had taken the stuff there and then came ahead, with his
mocking-bird signal, for you to go through the tunnel with him
from the kiosk, and bring them to the enclosure.  Probably
that's why I was locked into my room.  So I couldn't spy on
the job.  The bags are still there, aren't they?  He couldn't
move them, except under cover of darkness.  He'll come for
them to-night ....  He'll be too late."

Working, as he cast the fragmentary sentences over his
shoulder, Gavin nevertheless glanced often enough at
Standish's face to make certain from its foolishly dismayed
expression that each of his conjectures was correct.  Now,
finishing his task, he demanded:

"Your servants?  Are they all right?  Can you trust them?
Your house servants, I mean."

"Y--yes," stammered Milo, still battling with the idea of
bluffing this calmly authoritative man.  "Yes.  They're all
right.  But where you got the idea--"

"How many of them are there?  The servants, I mean."

"Four," spoke up Claire, returning from her finished work, and
pausing on her way to do like duty for the upstairs windows.
"Two men and two women."

"Please go out to the kitchen and see everything is all right,
there," said Brice.  "Lock and bar everything.  Tell your two
women servants they can get out, if they want to.  They'll be
no use here and they may get hysterical, as they did last
night when we had that scrimmage outside.  The men-servants
may be useful.  Send them here."

Before she could obey, the dining room curtains were parted,
and a black-clad little Jap butler sidled into the hallway,
his jaw adroop, his beady eyes astare with terror, his hands
washing each other with invisible soap-and-water.

"Sato!" exclaimed Claire.

The Jap paid no heed.

"Prease!" he chattered between castanet teeth.  "Prease, I hear.
I scare.  I no fight man.  I go, prease!  I s-s-s-s, I--"

Sato's scant knowledge of English seemed to forsake him, under
the stress of his terror.  And he broke into a monkeylike
mouthing in his native Japanese.  Milo took a step toward him.
Sato screeched like a stuck pig and crouched to the ground.

"Wait!" suggested Brice, going toward the abject creature.
"Let me handle him.  I know a bit of his language.  Miss
Standish, please go on with closing the rest of the house.
Here, you!" he continued, addressing the Jap.  "Here!"

Standing above the quivering Jap, he harangued him in halting
yet vehement Japanese, gesticulating and--after the manner of
people speaking a tongue unfamiliar to them--talking at the
top of his voice.  But his oration had no stimulating effect
on the poor Sato.  Scarce waiting for Brice to finish speaking,
the butler broke again into that monkey-like chatter of appeal
and fright.  Gavin silenced him with a threatening gesture, and
renewed his own harangue.  But, after perhaps a minute of it, he
saw the uselessness of trying to put manhood or pluck into the
groveling little Oriental.  And he lost his own temper.

"Here!" he growled, to Standish.  "Open the front door.  Open
it good and wide.  So!"

Picking up the quaking and chattering Sato by the collar, he
half shoved and half flung him across the
hallway, and, with a final heave, tossed him bodily down the
veranda steps.  Then, closing the door, and checking Bobby
Burns's eager yearnings to charge out after his beloved
deity's victim, Brice exclaimed:

"There!  That's one thing well done.  We're better off without
a coward like that.  He'd be getting under our feet all the
time, or else opening the doors to the Caesars, with the idea
of currying favor with them.  Where did you ever pick up such
an arrant little poltroon?  Most Japs are plucky enough."

"Hade lent him to us," said Milo, evidently impressed by
Brice's athletic demonstration against the little Oriental.
"Sato worked for him, after Hade's regular butler fell ill.
He--"

"H'm!" mused Brice.  "A hanger-on of Hade's, eh?  That may
explain it.  Sato's cowardice may have been a bit of rather
clever acting.  He saw no use in risking his neck for you
people when his master wasn't here.  It was no part of his spy
work to--"

"Spy work?" echoed Standish, in real astonishment.  "What?"

"Let it go at that," snapped Brice, adding as Claire reentered
the room, followed by the lanky house-man, "All secure in the
kitchen quarters, Miss Standish?  Good!  Please send this man
to close the upstairs shutters, too.  Not that there's any
danger that the Caesars will try to climb, before they find
they can't get in on this floor.  The sight of the barred
shutters will probably scare them off, anyway.  They're likely
to be more hungry for a surprise rush, than for a siege with
resistance thrown in.  If--"

He ceased speaking, his attention caught by a sight which, to
the others, carried no significance, whatever.

Simon Cameron, the insolently lazy Persian cat, had been
awakened from a nap in a rose-basket on the top of one of the
hall bookcases.  The tramping of feet, the scrambling ejection
of the Jap butler, the clanging shut of many metal blinds--all
these had interfered with the calm peacefulness of Simon
Cameron's slumbers.

Wherefore, the cat had awakened, had stretched all four
shapeless paws out to their full length in luxurious flexing,
and had then arisen majestically to his feet and had stretched
again, arching his fluffy back to an incredible height.  After
which, the cat had dropped lightly to the floor, five feet
below his resting place, and had started across the hall in a
mincing progress toward some spot where his cherished nap
could be pursued without so much disturbance from noisy
humans.

All this, Brice had seen without taking any more note of it
than had the two others.  But now, his gaze fixed itself on
the animal.

Simon Cameron's flowingly mincing progress had brought him to
the dining room doorway.  As he was about to pass through,
under the curtains, he halted, sniffed the air with much
daintiness, then turned to the left and halted again beside a
door which flanked the dining room end of the wide hall.

For an instant Simon Cameron stood in front of this.  Then,
winding his plumed tail around his hips, he sat down, directly
in front of the door, and viewed the portal interestedly, as
though he expected a mouse to emerge from it.

It was this seemingly simple action which had so suddenly
diverted Gavin from what he had been saying.  He knew the ways
of Persian cats, even as he knew the ways of collies.  And
both forms of knowledge had more than once been of some slight
use to him.

Facing Milo and Claire, he signed to them not to speak.  Then,
making sure the house-man had gone upstairs, he walked up to
Claire and whispered, pointing over his shoulder at the door
which Simon Cameron was guarding:

"Where does that door lead to?"

The girl almost laughed at the earnestness of his question,
following, as it did, upon his urgent signal for silence.

"Why," she answered, amusedly, "it doesn't lead anywhere.
It's the door of a clothes closet.  We keep our gardening
suits and our raincoats and such things in there.  Why do you
ask?"

By way of reply, Gavin crossed the hall in two silent strides,
his muscles tensed and his head lowered.  Seizing the knob, he
flung the closet door wide open, wellnigh sweeping the indignant
Simon Cameron off his furry feet.

At first glance, the closet's interior revealed only a more or
less orderly array of hanging raincoats and aprons and
overalls.  Then, all three of the onlooking humans focused
their eyes upon a pair of splayed and grimy bare feet which
protruded beneath a somewhat bulging raincoat of Milo's.

Brice thrust his arm in, between this coat and a gardening
apron, and jerked forth a silently squirming youth, perhaps
eighteen years old, swarthy and undersized.

"Well!" exclaimed Gavin, holding his writhing prize at arm's
length, "Simon Cameron must have a depraved taste in
playmates, if he tries to choose this one!  A regular beach
combing conch!  Probably a clay-eater, at that."

He spoke the words with seeming carelessness, but really with
deliberate intent.  For the glum silence of a conch is a hard
thing for any outsider to break down.  He recalled what Claire
had said of the Caesars' fierce distaste for the word "conch."
Also, throughout the South, "clay-eater," has ever been a
fighting word.

Brice had not gauged his insults in vain.  Instantly, the
captive's head twisted, like that of a pinioned pit terrier,
in a frenzied effort to drive his teeth into the hand or arm
of his captor.  Failing this, he spluttered into rapid-fire
speech.

"Ah'm not a conch!" he rasped, his voice sounding as rusty as
an unused hinge.  "Ah'm a Caesar, yo' dirty Yank!  Tuhn me
loose, yo'!  Ah ain't hurt nuthin'."

"How did you get in here?" bellowed Milo, advancing threateningly
on the youth, and swinging aloft one of his hamlike fists.

The intruder stiffened into silence and stolid rigidity.
Unflinchingly, he eyed the oncoming giant.  Brice motioned
Standish back.

"No use," said he.  "I know the breed.  They've been kicked
and beaten and hammered about, till a licking has no terrors
for them.  This sweet soul will stay in the silences, till--"

Again, he broke off speaking.  And again on account of Simon
Cameron.  The cat, recovering from the indignity of being
brushed from in front of the opening door, had returned to his
former post of watching, and now stood, tail erect and back
arched, staring up at the prisoner out of huge round green
eyes.  The sight of a stranger had its wonted lure for the
Persian.

The lad's impotently roving glance fell upon Simon Cameron.
And into his sullen face leaped stark terror.  At sight of it,
Gavin Brice hit on a new idea for wringing speech from the
captive.

He knew that the grossly ignorant wreckers and fisherfolk of
the keys had never set eyes on such an object as this, nor had
so much as heard of Persian cats' existence.  The few cats
they had seen were of course of the alley-variety, lean and of
short and mangy coat.  Simon Cameron's halo of wide-fluffing
silver-gray fur gave him the appearance of being double his
real size.  His plumed cheeks and tasseled ears and dished
profile and, above all, the weirdly staring green eyes--all
combined to present a truly frightful appearance to a youth so
unsophisticated as this and to any one as superstitious and as
fearful of all unknown things as were the conchs in general.

"Standish," said Brice, "just take my place for a minute as
holder of this conch's very ragged shirt collar.  So!  Now
then:"

He stepped back, and picked up Simon Cameron in his arms.  The
cat did not resent the familiarity, Gavin still being enough
of a stranger in the house to be of interest to the Persian.
But the round green eyes still remained fixed with unwinking
intensity upon the newer and thus more interesting arrival.
Which is the way of a Persian cat.

Brice held Simon Cameron gingerly, almost respectfully,
standing so the huge eyes were able to gaze unimpeded at the
gaping and shaking boy.  Then, speaking very slowly, in a deep
and reverent voice, he intoned:

"Devil, look mighty close at that conch, yonder.  Watch him, so's
you'll always remember him!  Put the voodoo on him, Devil.  Haunt
him waking, haunt him sleeping.  Haunt him eating, haunt him
drinking.  Haunt him standing and sitting, haunt him lying and
kneeling.  Rot his bones and his flesh and--"

A howl of panic terror from the youth interrupted the solemn
incantation.  The prisoner slumped to his knees in Standish's
grasp, weeping and jabbering for mercy.  Brice saw the time
was ripe for speech and that the captive's stolid nerve was
gone.  Turning on him, he said, sternly:

"If you'll speak up and answer us, truthfully, I'll make this
ha'nt take off the curse.  But if you lie, in one word, he'll
know it and he'll tell me, and--and then I'll turn him loose on
you.  It's your one chance.  Want it?"

The youth fairly gabbled his eagerness to assent.

"Good!" said Brice, still holding Simon Cameron, lest the
supposed devil spoil everything by rubbing against the
prisoner's legs and purring.  "First of all:--how did you get
in here?"

The boy gulped.  Gavin bent his own head toward the cat and
seemed about to resume his incantation.  With a galvanic jump,
the youth made answer:

"Came by the path.  Watched till the dawg run out in the road
to bark at suthin'.  This man," with a jerk of his head toward
his captor, "this man went to the road after him.  I cut across
the grass, yonder, and got in.  They come back.  I hid me in
there."

"H'm!  Why didn't you come by way of the tunnel, like the
other Caesars?"

"Pop tol me not to.  Sent me ahead.  Said mebbe they moughtn't
git in here if the doors was locked early.  Tol' me to hide me
in the house an' let 'em in, late, ef they-all couldn't git in
no earlier, or ef they couldn't cotch one of the two cusses
outside the house."

"Good strategy!" approved Brice.  "That explains why they
haven't rushed us, Standish.  They came here in force, and
most likely (if they've gotten out of the enclosure, yet)
they've surrounded the house, waiting for you or Hade to come
in or go out.  If that doesn't work, they plan to wait till
you're asleep, and then get in, by this gallant youngster's
help, and cut your throat at their leisure and loot the house
and take a good leisurely hunt for the treasure.  It calls for
more sense than I thought they had ....  How did they find the
tunnel?" he continued, to the prisoner.

"They been a-huntin' fer it, nigh onto one-half of a year,"
sulkily returned the boy.  "Pop done found it, yest'dy.
Stepped into it, he did, a walkin' past."

"The rumor of that tunnel has been hereabout for over a
century," explained Brice, to the Standishes.  "Just as the
treasure-rumors have.  I heard of it when I was a kid.  The
Caesars must have heard it, a thousand times.  But, till this
game started, there was no impetus to look for it, of course.
The tunnel is supposed to have been dug just after that
Seminole warparty cut off the refugees in the path.  By the
way, Miss Standish, I didn't mention it while we were still
there, but the mangrove-swamp is supposed to be haunted by the
ghosts of those killed settlers."

Brother and sister glanced at each other, almost in guilt, as
it seemed to the observing Brice.  And Claire said, shortly:

"I know.  Every one around here has heard it.  Some of the
negroes and even some of the more ignorant crackers declare
they have heard screams from the swamp on dark nights and that
white figures have been seen flitting--"

"So?" queried Brice.  "Back in the boat, you were starting to
tell me how you sat on the veranda, one night, and heard a cry
in the swamp and then saw a white figure emerge from the path.
Yes?  I have a notion that that white figure was responsible
for the cry, and that your brother and Rodney Hade were
responsible for both.  Wasn't that a trick to scare off any
chance onlookers, when some of the treasure was to be brought
here?"

"Yes," admitted Claire, shamefacedly, and she added: "Milo
hadn't told me anything about it.  And Rodney thought I was at
a dance at the Royal Palm Hotel, that evening.  I had expected
to go, but I had a headache.  When the cry and the white form
frightened me so, Milo had to tell me what they both meant.
That was how I found out, first, that they--"


"Claire!" cried Standish in alarmed rebuke.

"It's all right, Standish," said Gavin.  "I know all about it.
A good deal more than she does.  And none of it from her,
either.  We'll come to that, later.  Now for the prisoner."

Turning to the glumly scowling youth, he resumed:

"How many of them are there in this merry little midnight
murder party?"

"I dunno," grunted the boy.

"Devil, is that true?" gravely asked Gavin, bending again
toward Simon Cameron.

"Six!" babbled the lad, eagerly.  "Pop and--"

"Never mind giving me a census of them," said Brice.  "It
wouldn't do me any good.  I've left my copies of 'Who's Who'
and Burke's Peerage at home.  And they figured Mr. Standish
and Mr. Hade would both be here, to-night?"

"Most nights t'other one comes," said the boy.  "I laid out
yonder and heern him, one night.  Whistles like he's a
mocking-bird, when he gits nigh here.  I told Pop an' them
about that.  They--"

"By the way," asked Gavin, "when your Pop came back from
finding the tunnel, last night, was he in pretty bad shape?
Hey?  Was he?"

"He were," responded the captive, after another scared look at
Simon Cameron.  "He done fell into the tunnel, arter he step
down it.  An' he bust hisself up, suthin' fierce, round the
haid an' the th'oat.  He--"

"I see," agreed Brice.

Then, to Standish:

"I think we've got about all out of the charming child that we
can expect to.  Suppose we throw him out?"

"Throw him out?" echoed Milo, incredulously.  "Do you mean,
set him free?  Why, man he'd--"

"That's exactly what I mean," said Gavin.  "I agree with
Caesar--Julius Caesar, not the pirate.  Caesar used to say
that it was a mistake to hold prisoners.  They must be fed and
guarded and they can do incalculable mischief.  We've turned
this prisoner inside out.  We've learned from him that six men
are lurking somewhere outside, on the chance that you or
Rodney Hade may come out or come in, so that they can cut you
both off, comfortably, out there in the dark, and carry on
their treasure-hunt here.  Failing that, they plan to get in
here, when you're asleep.  All this lad can tell them is that
you are on your guard, and that there are enough of us to hold
the house against any possible rush.  He can also tell them,"
pursued Gavin, dropping back into his slowly solemn diction,
"about this devil--this ha'nt--that serves us, and of the
curse--the voodoo--he can put on them all if they try to harm
us.  We'll let him go.  He was sent on by the path because he
went some time ahead of the rest, and he didn't know the
secret of the tunnel.  In fact, none of them could have known
just where it ended here.  But they'll know by now.  He can
join them, if they're picketing the house.  And he can tell
them what he knows."

Strolling over to the front door, he unbarred it and opened it
wide, standing fearlessly in its lighted threshold.

"Pass him along to me," he bade Standish.  "Or, you can let
him go.  He won't miss the way out."

"But," argued Milo, stubbornly retaining his grip on the
ragged shirt collar, "I don't agree with you.  I'm going to
keep him here and lock him up, till--"

He got no further.  The sight of the open door leading to
freedom was too much for the youth's stolidity.  Twisting
suddenly, he drove his yellow teeth deep into the fleshy part
of Standish's hand.  And, profiting by the momentary slackening
of Milo's grasp, he made one wildly scrambling dive across the
hall, vaulting over the excited Bobby Burns (and losing a handful
of his disreputable trousers to the dog's jaws in the process)
and volleying over the threshold with the speed of an express
train.

While Standish nursed his sorely-bitten hand, Brice watched
the lad's lightning progress across the lawn.

Then, still standing in the open doorway, he called back,
laughingly to the two others: "Part of my well-built scheme
has gone to smash.  He didn't stop to look for any of his
clansmen.  Not even the redoubtable Pop.  He just beat it for
the hidden path, without hitting the ground more than about
once, on the way.  And he dived into the path like a rabbit.
He'll never stop till he reaches the beach.  And then the
chances are he'll swim straight out to sea without even
waiting to find where the Caesars' boats are cached ....  Best
get some hot water and iodine and wash out that bite,
Standish.  Don't look so worried, Miss Standish!  I'm in no
danger, standing here.  In the first place, I doubt if they'll
have the nerve to rush the house at all,--certainly not yet,
if they didn't recognize our fast-running friend.  In the
second, they're after Hade and your brother.  And in this
bright light they can't possibly mistake me for either of
them.  Hello!" he broke off.  "There went one of them, just
then, across that patch of light, down yonder.  And, unless my
eyes are going back on me, there's another of them creeping
along toward the head of the path.  They must have seen--or
thought they saw--some one dash down there, even if it was too
dark for them to recognize him.  And they are trying to get
some line on who he is ....  The moon is coming up.  That
won't help them, to any great extent."

He turned back into the room, partly shutting the door behind
him.  But he did not finish the process of closing it.

For--sweet, faint, yet distinct to them all--the soaring notes
of a mocking-bird's song swelled out on the quiet of the
night.

"Rodney Hade!" gasped Standish.  "It's his first signal.  He
gives it when he's a hundred yards from the end.  Good Lord!
And he's going to walk straight into that ambush!  It's--it's
sure death for him!"



CHAPTER IX

THE FIGURE IN WHITE


For a moment none of the three spoke.  Standish and his sister
stared at each other in dumb horror.  Then Milo took an
uncertain step toward the door.  Brice made no move to check
him, but stood looking quietly on, with the detached
expression of a man who watches an interesting stage drama.

Just within the threshold, Standish paused, irresolute, his
features working.  And Gavin Brice, as before, read his
emotions as though they were writ in large letters.  He knew
Milo was not only a giant in size and in strength, but that in
ordinary circumstances or at bay he was valiant enough.  But
it is one thing to meet casual peril, and quite another to
fare forth in the dark among six savage men, all of whom are
waiting avidly for the chance to murder.

A braver warrior than Milo Standish might well have hesitated
to face sure death in such a form, for the mere sake of saving
a man whom he feared and hated, and whose existence threatened
his own good name and liberty.

Wherefore, just within the shelter of the open door, the giant
paused and hung back, fighting for the nerve to go forth on
his fatal errand of heroism.  Gavin, studying him, saw with vivid
clearness the weakness of character which had made this man the
dupe and victim of Hade, and which had rendered him helpless against
the wiles of a master-mind.

But if Standish hesitated, Claire did not.  After one look of
scornful pity at her wavering half-brother, she moved swiftly
past him to the threshold.  There was no hint of hesitation in
her free step as she ran to the rescue of the man who had
ruined Milo's career.  And both onlookers knew she would brave
any and all the dire perils of the lurking marauders, in order
to warn back the unconsciously oncoming Hade.

As she sped through the doorway, Brice came to himself, with a
start.  Springing forward, he caught the flying little figure
and swung it from the ground.  Disregarding Claire's violent
struggles, he bore her back into the house, shutting and
locking the door behind her and standing with his back to it.

"You can't go, Miss Standish!" he said, in stern command, as
if rebuking some fractious child.  "Your little finger is
worth more than that blackguard's whole body.  Besides," he
added, grimly, "mocking birds, that sing nearly three weeks
ahead of schedule, must be prepared to pay the bill."

She was struggling with the door.  Then, realizing that she
could not open it, she ran to the nearest window which looked
out on the lawn and the path-head.  Tugging at the sash she
flung it open, and next fell to work at the shutter-bars.  As
she threw wide the shutters, and put one knee on the sill,
Milo Standish
caught her by the shoulder.  Roughly drawing her back into the
room, he said:

"Brice is right.  It's not your place to go.  It would be
suicide.  Useless suicide, at that.  I'd go, myself.  But--but--"

"'They that take up the sword shall perish by the sword,'"
quoted Gavin, tersely.  "The man who sets traps must expect to
step into a trap some day.  And those Caesars will be more
merciful assassins than the moccasin snakes would have been
....  He's taking plenty of time, to cover that last hundred
yards.  Perhaps he met the conch boy, running back, and had
sense enough to take alarm."

"Not he," denied Standish.  "That fool boy was so scared, he'd
plunge into the brush or the water, the second he heard
Rodney's step.  Those conchs can keep as mum as Seminoles.
He'd never let Rodney see him or hear him.  He--"

Standish did not finish his sentence.  Into his slow-moving
brain, an idea dawned.  Leaning far out of the window and
shouting at the top of his enormous lungs, he bawled through
the night:

"Hade!  Back, man!  Go back!  They'll kill you!"

The bull-like bellow might have been heard for half a mile.
And, as it ceased, a muffled snarling, like a dog's, came from
the edge of the forest, where waited the silent men whose
knives were drawn for the killing.

And, in the same instant, from the head of the path, drifted
the fluting notes of a mocking bird.

Disregarding or failing to catch the meaning of the
thickly-bellowed warning, Rodney Hade was advancing
nonchalantly upon his fate.  The three in the hallway crowded
into the window-opening, tense, wordless, mesmerized, peering
aghast toward the screen of vines which veiled the end of the
path.

The full moon, which Brice had glimpsed as it was rising, a
minute or so before, now breasted the low tops of the orange
trees across the highroad and sent a level shaft of light
athwart the lawn.  Its clear beams played vividly on the dark
forest, revealing the screen of vines at the head of the path,
and revealing also three crouching dark figures, close to the
ground, at the very edge of the lawn, not six feet from the
path head.

And, almost instantly, with a third repetition of the mocking
bird call, the vine screen was swept aside.  Out into the
moonshine sauntered a slight figure, all in white, yachting
cap on head, lighted cigarette in hand.

The man came out from the black vine-screen, and, for a
second, stood there, as if glancing carelessly about him.
Milo Standish shouted again, at the top of his lungs.  And
this time, Claire's voice, like a silver bugle, rang out with
his in that cry of warning.

But, before the dual shout was fairly launched, three dark
bodies had sprung forward and hurled themselves on the
unsuspecting victim.  There was a tragically brief struggle.
Then, all four were on the ground, the vainly-battling white
body underneath.  And there was a gruesome sound as of angry
beasts worrying their meat.

Carried out of his own dread, by the spectacle, Milo
Standish vaulted over the sill and out onto the veranda.  But
there he came to a halt.  For there was no further need for
him to throw away his own life in the belated effort at
rescue.

The three black figures had regained their feet.  And, on the
trampled lawn-edge in front of them lay a huddle of white,
with darker stains splashed here and there on it.  The body
lay in an impossible posture--a posture which Nature neither
intends nor permits.  It told its own dreadful story, to the
most uninitiated of the three onlookers at the window.

With dragging feet, Milo Standish turned back, and reentered
the house, as he had gone out of it.

"I am a coward!" he said, heavily.  "I could have saved him.
Or we could have fought, back to back, till we were killed.
It would have been a white man's way of dying.  I am a
coward!"

He sank down in a chair and buried his bearded face in his
hands.  No one contradicted him or made any effort at comfort.
Claire, deathly pale, still crouched forward, staring blindly
at the moveless white figure at the head of the path.

"Peace to his soul!" said Brice, in a hushed voice, adding
under his breath: "If he had one!"

Then, laying his hand gently on Claire's arm, he drew her away
from the window and shut the blinds on the sight which had so
horrified them.

"Go and lie down, Miss Standish," he bade her.  "This has been
an awful thing for you or any other woman to look on.  Take a
double dose of aromatic spirits of ammonia, and tell one of
the maids to bring you some black coffee ....  Do as I say,
please!" he urged, as she looked mutely at him and made no
move to obey.  "You may need your strength and your nerve.
And--try to think of anything but what you've just seen.
Remember, he was an outlaw, a murderer, the man who wrecked
your brother's honorable life, a thorough-paced blackguard, a
man who merits no one's pity.  More than that, he was one of
Germany's cleverest spies, during the war.  His life was
forfeit, then, for the injury he did his country.  I am not
heartless in speaking this way of a man who is dead.  I do it,
so that you may not feel the horror of his killing as you
would if a decent man had died, like that.  Now go, please."

Tenderly, he led her to the foot of the stairs.  The house man
was just returning from the locking of the upstairs shutters.
To him Brice gave the order for coffee to be taken to her room
and for one of the maids to attend her there.

As she passed dazedly up the stairs, Gavin stood over the
broken giant who still sat inert and huddled in his chair,
face in hands.

"Buck up!" said Brice, impatiently.  "If you can grieve for a
man who made you his slave and--"

"Grieve for him?" repeated Standish, raising his haggard face.
"Grieve for him?  I thank God he's dead.  I hated him as I
never hated any one else or thought I could hate any one!  I
hated him as we hate the man in whose power we are and who
uses us as helpless pawns in his dirty game.  I'd have killed
him long ago, if I had had the nerve, and if he hadn't made me
believe he had a charmed life.  His death means freedom to
me--glorious freedom!  It's for my own foul cowardice that I'm
grieving.  The cowardice that held me here while a man's life
might have been saved by me.  That's going to haunt me as long
as I live."

"Bosh!" scoffed Gavin.  "You'll get over it.  Self-forgiveness
is the easiest blessing to acquire.  You're better of it,
already, or you couldn't talk so glibly about it.  Now, about
this treasure-business: You know, of course, that you'll have
to drop it,--that you'll have to give up every cent of it to
the Government?  If you can't find the cache, up North, where
Hade used to send it when he lugged it away from here, it is
likely to go a bit hard with you.  I'm going to do all I can
to get you clear.  Not for your own sake, but for your
sister's.  But you'll have to 'come through, clean,' if I'm to
help you.  Now, if you've got anything to say--"

He paused, invitingly.  Milo gaped at him, the big bearded
face working convulsively.  Nerves wrenched, easily dominated
by a stronger nature, the giant was struggling in vain to
resume his pose of not understanding Brice's allusions.
Presently, with a sigh, that was more like a grunt of
hopelessness, he thrust his fingers into an inner pocket of
his waistcoat, and drew forth a somewhat tarnished silver
dollar.  This he held toward Gavin, in his wide palm.

Brice took the coin from him and inspected it with
considerable interest.  In spite of the tarnish and the
ancient die and date, its edges were as sharp and its surface
as unworn as though it had been minted that very year.
Clearly, this dollar had jingled in no casual pockets, along
with other coins, nor had it been sweated or marred by any
sort of use.

"Do you know what that is?" asked Milo.

"Yes," said Brice.  "It is a United States silver dollar,
dated '1804.'"

"Do you know its value?" pursued Milo.  "But of course you
don't.  You probably think it is worth its weight in silver
and nothing more."

"It is, and it isn't," returned Gavin.  "If I were to take
this dollar, to-night, to the right groups of numismatists,
they would pay me anywhere from $3,000 to $7,000 for it."

"Oh!" exclaimed Standish, in visible surprise.  "You know
something about numismatics, then?"

"Just a little," modestly admitted Brice.  "In my work, one
has to have a smattering of it.  For instance--if I remember
rightly--there are only three of these 1804 silver dollars
generally known to be in existence.  That is why collectors
are ready to pay a fortune for authentic specimens of them, in
good condition.  Yes, a smattering of numismatics may come in
handy, at times.  So does sailor lore.  It did, for instance,
with a chap I used to know.  He had read up, on this special
dollar.  He was dead-broke.  He was passing the Gloucester
waterfront, one day, and saw a dockful of rotting old schooners
that were being sold at auction for firewood and for such bits
of their metal as weren't rusted to pieces.  He read the catalog.
Then he telegraphed to me to wire him a loan of one hundred
dollars.  For the catalog gave the date of one schooner's
building as 1804.  He knew it used to be a hard-and-fast
custom of ship-builders to put a silver dollar under the
mainmast of every vessel they built, a dollar of that
particular year.  He bought the schooner for $70.  He spent
ten dollars in hiring men to rip out her mast.  Under it was
an 1804 dollar.  He sold it for $3,600."

"Since you know so much about the 1804 dollar," went on Milo,
catechizingly, "perhaps you know why it is so rare?  Or
perhaps you didn't add a study of American history to your
numismatics?"

"The commonly accepted story goes," said Brice, taking no heed
of the sneer, "that practically the whole issue of 1804
dollars went toward the payment of the Louisiana Purchase
money, when Uncle Sam paid Napoleon Bonaparte's government a
trifle less than $15,000,000 (or under four cents an acre) for
the richest part of the whole United States.  Payment was made
in half a dozen different forms,--in settlement of anti-French
claims and in installment notes, and so forth.  But something
between a million and two million dollars of it is said to
have been paid in silver."

"Are you a schoolmaster, Mr. Brice?" queried Milo, who seemed
unable to avoid sneering in futile fashion at the man who was
dominating his wavering willpower.

"No, Mr. Standish," coolly replied the other.  "I am Gavin
Brice, of the United States Secret Service."

Standish's bearded jaw dropped.  He glanced furtively about
him, like a trapped rat.  Gavin continued, authoritatively:

"You've nothing to fear from me, as long as you play straight.
And I'm here to see that you shall.  Two hours ago, I was for
renouncing my life-work and throwing over my job.  Never mind
why.  I've changed my mind, now.  I'm in this thing to the
finish.  With Hade out of the game, I can see my way through."

"But--"

"Now I'll finish the yarn you were so gradually leading up to
with those schoolboy questions of yours.  French statesmen
claimed, last year, that something over a million dollars of
the Louisiana purchase money was never paid to France.  That
was money, in the form of silver dollars, which went by sea.
In skirting the Florida coast--probably on the way from some
mint or treasury in the South--one or more of the treasure
ships parted from their man-o'-war escorts in a hurricane, and
went aground on the southeastern Florida reefs.  The black
pirate, Caesar, and his cutthroats did the rest.

"This was no petty haul, such as Caesar was accustomed to, and
it seems to have taken his breath away.  He and his crew
carried it into Caesar's Estuary--not Caesar's Creek--an
inlet, among the mangrove swamps.  They took it there by
night, and sank it in shallow water, under the bank.  There
they planned to have it until it might be safe to divide it
and to scatter to Europe or to some place where they could
live in safety and in splendor.  Only a small picked crew of
Caesar's knew the hiding place.  And, by some odd coincidence,
every man of them died of prussic acid poisoning, at a
booze-feast that Caesar invited them to, at his shack down on
Caesar's creek, a month later.  Then, almost at once
afterward, as you've probably heard, Caesar himself had the
bad luck to die with extreme suddenness.

"The secret was lost.  Dozens of pirates and of wreckers--ancestors
of the conchs--knew about the treasure.  But none
of them could find it.

"There was a rumor that Caesar had written instructions about
it, on the flyleaf of a jeweled prayer book that was part of
some ship's loot.  But his heirs sold or hocked the
prayer-book, at St. Augustine or Kingston or Havana, before
this story reached them.  None of them could have read it,
anyhow.  Then, last year, Rodney Hade happened upon that book,
(with the jewels all pried out of the cover, long ago), in a
negro cabin on Shirley Street, at Nassau, after hunting for
it, off and on, for years.  The Government had been hunting
for it, too, but he got to it a week ahead of us.  That was
how we found who had it.  And that is why we decided to watch
him ....  Do you want me to keep on prattling about these
things, to convince you I'm what I say I am?  Or have you had
enough?

"For instance, do you want me to tell you how Hade wound his
web around a blundering fool whose help and whose hidden path
and tunnel and caches he needed, in order to make sure of the
treasure?  Or is it enough for me to say the dollars belong to
the United States
Government, and that Uncle Sam means to have them back?"

Standish still gaped at him, with fallen jaw and bulging eyes.
Gavin went on:

"Knowing Hade's record and his cleverness as I do, I can guess
how he was going to swing the hoard when he finished
transporting all of it to safety.  Probably, he'd clear up a
good many thousand dollars by selling the coins, one at a
time, secretly, to collectors who would think he was selling
them the only 1804 dollar outside the three already known to
be in existence.  When that market was glutted, he was due to
melt down the rest of the dollars into bar silver.  Silver is
high just now, you know.  Worth almost double what once it
was.  The loot ought to have been much the biggest thing in
his speckled career.  How much of it he was intending to pass
along to you, is another question.  By the way--the three
canvas bags he left out by the kiosk ought to do much toward
whetting the Caesars' appetite for the rest.  It may even key
them up to rushing the house before morning."

"We'll be ready for them!" spoke up Standish, harshly, as
though glad to have a prospect of restoring his broken
self-respect by such a clash.

"Quite so," agreed Gavin, smiling at the man's new ardor for
battle.  "It would be a pleasant little brush--if it weren't
for your sister.  Miss Standish has seen about enough of that
sort of thing for one night.  If she weren't a thoroughbred,
with the nerves of a thoroughbred and the pluck as well, she'd
be a wreck, from what has happened already.  More of it might
be seriously bad for her."

Standish glowered.  Then he lifted his bulky body from the low
chair and crossed the hall to the telephone.  Taking the
receiver from the hook, he said sulkily to Brice:

"Maybe you're right.  I have a couple of night watchmen
patrolling the road, above and below.  I'll phone to the
agency to send me half a dozen more, to clear the grounds.
I'd phone the police about it, but I don't like--"

"Don't like to lock the stable door after the horse is
stolen?" suggested Brice.  "Man, get it into that thick skull
of yours that the time for secrecy is past!  Your game is up.
Hade is dead.  Your one chance is to play out the rest of this
hand with your cards on the table.  The Government knows you
are only the dupe.  It will let you off, if the money is--"

"What in blue blazes is the matter with Central?" growled
Milo, whanging the receiver-hook up and down in vexation.  "Is
she dead?"

Gavin went over to him and took the receiver out of his hand.
Listening for a moment, he made answer:

"I don't believe Central is dead.  But I know this phone is.
Our Caesar friends seem to be more sophisticated than I
thought.  They've cut the wires, from outside."

"H'm!" grunted Milo.  "That means we've got to play a lone
hand.  Well, I'm not sorry.  I--"

"Not necessarily," contradicted Gavin.  "I'd rather
have relied on the local watchmen, of course.  But their
absence needn't bother us, overmuch."

"What do you mean?"

Before Gavin could answer, a stifled cry from the hallway
above brought both men to attention.  It was followed by a
sound of lightly running feet.  And Claire Standish appeared
at the stair-top.  She was deathly pale, and her dark eyes
were dilated with terror.

Gavin ran up the steps to meet her.  For she swayed perilously
as she made her way down toward the men.

"What is it?" demanded Milo, excitedly.  "What's happened?"

Claire struggled visibly to regain her composure.  Then,
speaking with forced calmness, she said:

"I've just seen a ghost!  Rodney Hade's ghost!"

The two looked at her in dumb incomprehension.  Then, without
a word, Milo wheeled and strode to the window from which they
had watched the tragedy.  Opening the shutter, he peered out
into the moonlight.

"Hade's still lying where he fell," he reported, tersely.
"They haven't even bothered to move him.  You were dreaming.
If--"

"I wasn't asleep," she denied, a trace of color beginning to
creep back into her blanched cheeks.  "I had just lain down.
I heard--or thought I heard--a sound on the veranda roof.  I
peeped out through the grill of the shutter.  There, on the
roof, not ten feet away from me, stood Rodney Hade.  He was
dressed in rags.  But I recognized him.  I saw his face, as
clearly as I see yours.  He--"

"One of the Caesars," suggested Brice.  "They found the lower
windows barred and they sent some one up, to see if there was
any ingress by an upper window.  The porch is easy to climb,
with all those vines.  So is the whole house, for that matter.
He--"

"It was Rodney Hade!" she insisted, shuddering.  "I saw his
face with the moonlight on it--"

"And with a few unbecoming scratches on it, too, from the
underbrush and from those porch vines," chimed in a suave
voice from the top of the stairs.  "Milo, next time you bar
your house, I suggest you don't forget and leave the cupola
window open.  If it was easy for me to climb up there from the
veranda roof, it would be just as easy for any of our friends
out yonder."

Down the stairs--slowly, nonchalantly,--lounged Rodney Hade.

His classic mask of a face was marred by one or two scratches
and by a smudge of dirt.  But it was as calm and as eternally
smiling as ever.  In place of his wontedly correct, if garish,
form of dress, he was clad in ragged calico shirt and soiled
drill trousers whose lower portions were in ribbons.  All of
which formed a ludicrous contrast to his white buckskin
yachting shoes and his corded white silk socks.

Claire and the two men stood staring up at him in utter
incredulity.  Bobby Burns broke the spell by bounding
snarlingly toward the unkempt intruder.

Brice absentmindedly caught the dog's collar as Bobby streaked
past him on his punitive errand.

"Hade!" croaked Standish, his throat sanded with horror.
'"'Hade!  I--we--we saw you--murdered!"

Hade laughed pleasantly.

"Perhaps the wish was father to the thought?" he hinted, with
an indulgent twinkle in his perpetual smile.  "I hate
mysteries.  Here's an end to this one I was on my way along the
path, when a young fellow came whirling around a bend and collided
with me.  The impact knocked him off his feet.  I collared him.
He didn't want to talk.  But," the smile twisting upward at one
corner of the mouth in a look which did not add to the beauty of
the ascetic face, "I used persuasion.  And I found what was going
on here.  I stripped off my outer clothes, and made him put them
on.   Then I put my yachting cap on him and pulled it low over
his eyes.  And I bandaged his mouth with my handkerchief, to
gag him.  Then I walked him along, ahead of me.  I gave the
signal.  And I stuck my cigarette in his hand and shoved him
through the screen of vines.  They finished him, poor fool!  I
had no outer clothes of my own.  So I went back and put on
his.  Then I slipped through that chuckle-headed aggregation
out there and--here I am."

As he finished speaking, he turned his icy smile upon Gavin
Brice.

"Roke signaled a fruit boat, Mr. Brice," said he, "and came
over to where my yacht was lying, to tell me you had gotten
loose.  That was why I came here, tonight.  He seems to think
you know more than a man should know and yet stay alive.  And,
as a rule, he is apt to be right.  He--"

"Miss Standish," interposed Gavin, "would you mind very much,
going into some other room?  This isn't a pleasant scene for
you."

"Stay where you are, for a minute, Claire!" commanded Milo,
shaking off a lethargy of wonder which had settled upon him,
at sight of his supposedly dead tyrant.  "I want you to hear
what I've got to say.  And I want you to endorse it.  I've had
a half hour of freedom.  And it's meant too much to me, to let
me go back into the hell I've lived through, this past few
months."

He wheeled about on the newcomer and addressed him, speaking
loudly and rapidly in a voice hoarse with rage:

"Hade, I'm through!  Get that?  I'm through!  You can foreclose
on my home here, and you can get me sent to prison for that
check I was insane enough to raise when I had no way out of the
hole.  But I'm through.  It isn't worth it.  Nothing is worth
having to cringe and cheat for.  I'm through cringing to you.
And I'm through cheating the United States Government.  You
weren't content with making me do that.  You tried, to-day, to
make me a murderer--to make me your partner in the death of the
man who had saved my life.  When I found that out--when I learned
what you could stoop to and could drag me to,--I swore to myself
to cut free from you, for all time.  Now, go ahead and do your
dirtiest to me and to mine.  What I said, goes.  And it goes for
my sister, too.  Doesn't it, dear girl?"

For answer, Claire caught her brother's big hand in both of
hers, and raised it to her lips.  A light of happiness
transfigured her face.  Milo pulled away his hand, bashfully,
his eyes misting at her wordless praise for his belatedly
manly action.

"Good!" he approved, passing his arm about her and drawing her
close to him.  "I played the cur once, this evening.  It's
good to know I've had enough pluck to do this one white thing,
to help make up for it."


He faced Gavin, head thrown back, giant shoulders squared,
eyes alight.

"Mr. Brice," he said, clearly.  "Through you, I surrender to
the United States Government.  I'll make a signed confession,
any time you want it.  I'm your prisoner."

Gavin shook his head.

"The confession will be of great service, later," said he,
"and, as state's evidence, it will clear you from any danger
of punishment.  But you're not my prisoner.  Thanks to your
promise of a confession.  I have a prisoner, here.  But it is
not you."

"No?" suavely queried Hade, whose everlasting smile had not
changed and whose black eyes remained as serene as ever,
through the declaration of rebellion on the part of his
satellite.  "If Standish is not your prisoner, he'll be the
State of Florida's prisoner, by this time to-morrow, when I
have lodged his raised check with the District Attorney.
Think that over, Standish, my dear friend.  Seven years for
forgery is not a joyous thing, even in a Florida prison.
Here, in the community where your family's name has been
honored, it will come extra hard.  And on Claire, here, too.
Mightn't it be better to think that over, a minute or so,
before announcing your virtuous intent?  Mightn't--"

"Don't listen to him, Milo!" cried the girl, seizing
Standish's hand again in an agony of appeal, and smiling
encouragingly up into his sweating and irresolute face.
"We'll go through any disgrace, together.  You and I.  And
after it's all over, I'll give up my whole life to making you
happy, and helping you to get on your feet again."

"There'll be no need for that, Miss Standish," said Brice.
"Of course, Hade can foreclose his mortgage on your half-brother's
property and call in Standish's notes,--if he's in a
position to do it, which I don't think he will be.  But, as
for the raised check, why, he's threatening Standish with an
empty gun.  Hade, if ever you get home again, look in the
compartment of your strongbox where you put the red-sealed
envelope with Standish's check in it.  The envelope is still
there.  So are the seals.  The check is not.  You can verify
that, for yourself, later, perhaps.  In the meantime, take my
word for it."

A cry of delight from Claire--a groan from Standish that
carried with it a world of supreme relief--broke in upon
Gavin's recital.  Paying no heed to either of his hosts, Brice
walked across to the unmovedly smiling Hade, and placed one
hand on the latter's shoulder.

"Mr. Hade," said he, quietly, "I am an officer of the Federal
Secret Service.  I place you under arrest, on charges of--"

With a hissing sound, like a striking snake's, Rodney Hade
shook off the detaining hand.  In the same motion, he leaped
backward, drawing from his torn pocket an automatic pistol.

Brice, unarmed, stood for an instant looking into the squat
little weapon's black muzzle, and at the gleaming black eyes
in the ever-smiling white face behind it.

He was not afraid.  Many times, before, had he faced leveled
guns, and, like many another war-veteran, he had outgrown the
normal man's dread of such weapons.

But as he was gathering his strength for a spring at his
opponent, trusting that the suddenness and unexpectedness of
his onset might shake the other's aim, Rodney Hade took the
situation into his own hands.

Not at random had he made that backward leap.  Still covering
Gavin with his pistol, he flashed one hand behind him and
pressed the switch-button which controlled the electric lights
in the hallway and the adjoining rooms.

Black darkness filled the place.  Brice sprang forward through
the dark, to grapple with the man.  But Hade was nowhere
within reach of Brice's outflung arms.  Rodney had slipped,
snakelike, to one side, foreseeing just such a move on the
part of his foe.

Gavin strained his ears, to note the man's direction.  But
Milo Standish was thrashing noisily about in an effort to
locate and seize the fugitive.  And the racket his huge body
made in hitting against furniture and in caroming off the
walls and doors, filled the hall with din.

Remembering at last the collie's presence in that mass of
darkness, Gavin shouted:

"Bobby!  Bobby Burns!  Take him!"

From somewhere in the gloom, there was a beast-snarl and a
scurry of clawed feet on the polished floor.  At the same time
the front door flew wide.

Silhouetted against the bright moonlight, Brice had a
momentary glimpse of Hade, darting out through the doorway,
and of a tawny-and-white canine whirlwind flying at the man's
throat.

But Brice's shout of command had been a fraction of a second
too late.  Swiftly as had the collie obeyed, Rodney Hade had
already reached and silently unbarred the door, by the time
the dog got under way.  And, as Bobby Burns sprang, the door
slammed shut in his face, leaving the collie growling and
tearing at the unyielding panels.

Then it was that Claire found the electric switch, with her
groping hands, and pressed the button.  The hall and its
adjoining rooms were flooded with light, revealing the
redoubtable Bobby Burns hurling himself again and again at the
closed door.

Gavin shoved the angry dog aside, and opened the portal.  He
sprang out, the dog beside him.  And as they did so, both of
them crashed into a veranda couch which Hade, in escaping,
had thrust across the closed doorway in anticipation of
just such a move.

Over went the couch, under the double impetus.  By catching at
the doorway frame, Gavin barely managed to save himself from a
nasty fall.  The dog disentangled himself from an avalanche of
couch cushions and made furiously for the veranda steps.

But Brice summoned him back.  He was not minded to let Bobby
risk life from knife-cut or from strong, strangling hands, out
there in the perilous shadows beyond the lawn.  And he knew
the futility of following Hade, himself, among merciless men
and through labyrinths with whose' windings Rodney was far
more familiar than was he.  So, reluctantly, he turned back
into the house.  A glance over the moonlit lawn revealed no
sign of the fugitive.

"I'm sorry," he said to Standish, as he shut the door behind
him and patted the fidgetingly excited Bobby Burns on the
head.  "I may never have such a good chance at him again.  And
your promise of a confession was the thing that made me arrest
him.  Your evidence would have been enough to convict him.
And that's the only thing that could have convicted him or
made it worth while to arrest him.  He's worked too skillfully
to give us any other hold on him ....  I was a thick-witted
idiot not to think, sooner, of calling to Bobby.  I'd stopped
him, once, when he went for Hade, and of course he wouldn't
attack again, right away, without leave.  A dog sees in the
dark, ten times as well as any man does.  Bobby was the
solution.  And I forgot to use him till it was too late.  With
a collie raging at his throat, Hade would have had plenty of
trouble in getting away, or even in using his gun.  Lord, but
I'm a dunce!"

"You're--you're,--splendid!" denied Claire, her eyes soft and
shining and her cheeks aglow.  "You faced that pistol without
one atom of fear.  And I could see your muscles tensing for a
spring, right at him, before the light went out."

Gavin Brice's heart hammered mightily against his ribs, at her
eager praise.  The look in her eyes went to his brain.
Through his mind throbbed the exultant thought:

"She saw my muscles tense as he aimed at me.  That means she
was looking at me!  Not at him.  Not even at the pistol.  She
couldn't have done that, unless--unless--"

"What's to be done, now?" asked Milo, turning instinctively to
Gavin for orders.

The question brought the dazedly joyous man back to his
senses.  With exaggerated matter-of-factness, he made reply:

"Why, the most sensible thing we can all do just now is to eat
dinner.  A square meal works wonders in bracing people up.
Miss Standish, do you think you can rouse the maids to an
effort to get us some sort of food?  If not, we can forage for
ourselves, in the icebox.  What do you think?"

      *      *      *      *      *

Two hours later--after a sketchy meal served by trembling-handed
servants--the trio were seated in the music-room.  Over and over,
a dozen times, they had reviewed their position, from all angles.
And they had come to the conclusion that the sanest thing to do
was to wait in comfortable safety behind stoutly shuttered windows
until the dawn of day should bring the place's laborers back to
work.  Daylight, and the prospect of others' presence on the
grounds, was certain to disperse the Caesars.  And it would be
ample time then to go to Miami and to safer quarters, while Gavin
should start the hunt after Rodney Hade.  The two men had agreed
to divide the night into watches.

"One of the torpedo-boat destroyers down yonder, off Miami,
can ferret out Hade's yacht and lay it by the heels, in no
time," explained Brice.  "His house is watched, always,
lately.  And every port and railroad will be watched, too.
The chief reason I want to get hold of him is to find where he
has sent the treasure.  You have no idea, either of you?"

"No," answered Milo.  "He explained to me that he was sending
it North, to a place where nobody could possibly find it, and
that, as soon as it was all there, he'd begin disposing of it.
Then we were to have our settlement, after it was melted down
and sold."

"Who works with him?  I mean, who helps him bring the stuff
here?  Who, besides you, I mean?"

"Why, his yacht-crew," said Milo.  "They're all picked men of
his own.  Men he has known for years and has bound to himself
in all sorts of ways.  He has only eleven of them, for it's a
small yacht.  But he says he owns the souls of each and every
one of the lot.  He pays them double wages and gives them a
fat bonus on anything he employs them on.  They're nearly all
of them men who have done time, and--"

"A sweet aggregation for this part of the twentieth century!"
commented Gavin.  "I wish I'd known about all that," he added,
musingly.  "I supposed you and one or two men like Roke were
the only--"

"Roke is more devoted to him than any dog could be," said
Claire.  "He worships him.  And, speaking of dogs, I left
Bobby Burns in the kitchen, getting his supper.  I forgot all
about him."

She set down Simon Cameron, who was drowsing in her lap, and
got to her feet.  As she did so, a light step sounded in the
hallway, outside.  Gavin jumped up and hurried past her.

He was just in time to see Rodney Hade cross the last yard or
so of the hallway, and unlock and open the front door.

The man had evidently entered the house from above, though all
the shutters were still barred and the door from the cupola
had later been locked.  Remembering the flimsy lock on that
door, Gavin realized how Hade could have made an entrance.

But why Hade was now stealing to the front door and opening
it, was more than his puzzled brain could grasp.  All this
flashed through Brice's mind, as he caught sight of his enemy,
and at the same time he was aware that Hade was no longer clad
in rags, but wore a natty white yachting suit.

Before these impressions had had full time to register
themselves on Gavin's brain, he was in motion.  This time, he
was resolved, the prey should not slip through his fingers.

As Brice took the first forward-springing step, Hade finished
unfastening the door and flung it wide.

In across the threshold poured a cascade of armed men.
Hard-faced and tanned they were, one and all, and dressed as
yacht sailors.

Then Gavin Brice knew what had happened, and that his own life
was not worth a chipped plate.



CHAPTER X

THE GHOST TREE


Claire Standish had followed Brice to the curtained doorway of
the library.  She, too, had heard the light step in the hall.
Its sound, and the galvanizing effect it had had on Gavin,
aroused her sharp interest.

She reached the hallway just in time to see Hade swing open
the door and admit the thronging group of sailors from his
yacht.

But not even the sight of Hade, and these ruffians of his,
astounded her as did the action of Gavin Brice.

Brice had been close behind Hade as the door swung wide.  His
incipient rush after his enemy had carried him thus far, when
the tables had so suddenly been turned against him and the
Standishes.

Now, without pausing in his onward dash, he leaped past Hade
and straight among the in-pouring sailors.

Hade had not been aware of Brice's presence in the hall.  The
sailors' eyes were momentarily dazzled by the brightness of
the lights.  Thus, they did not take in the fact of the
plunging figure, in time to check its flight.

Straight through their unprepared ranks Gavin Brice tore his
way.  So might a veteran football halfback
smash a path through the rushline of a vastly inferior team.

Hade cried out to his men, and drew his pistol.  But even as
he did so, the momentarily glimpsed Gavin was lost to his
view, amid the jostling and jostled sailors.

Past the loosely crowding men, Brice ripped his way, and out
onto the veranda which he cleared at a bound.  Then, running
low, but still at top speed, he sped around the bottom of the
porch, past the angle of the house and straight for the far
side.

He did not make for the road, but for the enclosure into which
he had peeped that morning, and for the thick shade which shut
off the moon's light.

Now, he ran with less caution.  For, he knew the arrival of so
formidable a body of men must have been enough to send the
Caesars scattering for cover.

Before he reached the enclosure he veered abruptly to one
side, dashing across a patch of moonlit turf, and heading for
the giant live oak that stood gauntly in its center.

Under the "Ghost Tree's" enormous shade he came to a stop,
glancing back to see if the direction of his headlong flight
had been noted.  Above him towered the mighty corpse of what
had once been an ancestral tree.  He remembered how it had
stood there, bleakly, under the morning sunlight,--its myriad
spreading branches and twigs long since killed by the tons of
parasitical gray moss which festooned its every inch of
surface with long trailing masses of dead fluff.

Not idly had Brice studied that weird tree and its
position.  Now, standing beneath its black shade, he drew
forth a matchbox he had taken from the smoking table after
dinner.

Cautiously striking a match and shielding it in his cupped
palms, he applied the bit of fire to the lowest hanging spray
of the avalanche of dead gray moss.

A month of bone-dry weather had helped to make his action a
success.  The moss ignited at first touch of the match.  Up
along the festoon shot a tongue of red flame.  The nearest
adjoining branch's burden of moss caught the fiery breath and
burst into blaze.

With lightning speed, the fire roared upward, the branches to
either side blazing as the outsputtering flames kissed them.

In a little more than a breath, the gigantic tree was a
roaring sheet of red-and-gold-fire, a ninety-foot torch which
sent its flood of lurid light to the skies above and made the
earth for a radius of two hundred yards as bright as day.

Far out to sea that swirling tower of scarlet flame hurled its
illumination.  For miles on every hand it could be seen.  The
sound of its crackle and hiss and roar was deafening.  The
twigs, dry and dead, caught fire from the surrounding blaze of
moss, and communicated their flame to the thicker branches and
to the tree's towering summit.

And thus the fierce vividness of blazing wood was added to the
lighter glare of the inflammable moss.

The spectacle was incredibly beautiful, but still more awesome
and terrifying.  The crackle and snap of burning wood broke
forth on the night air like the purr of fifty machine guns.

But Gavin Brice had not waited to gaze on what was perhaps the
most marvelous display of pyrotechnics ever beheld on the
Florida coast.  At first touch of flame to the first festoon
of moss, he had taken to his heels.

Claire Standish gazed in unbelieving horror at the seemingly
panic flight of the man who had so strangely dominated her
life and her brother's, during these past few hours.  He had
faced death at Rodney Hade's pistol, he had been lazily calm
at the possibility of a rush from the Caesars.  He had shown
himself fearless, amusedly contemptuous of danger.  Yet here
he was fleeing for his very life and leaving the Standishes at
the mercy of the merciless!

More,--unless she had deceived herself, grossly, Claire had
seen in his eyes the lovelight that all his assumption of
indifference had not been able to quench.  She had surprised
it there, not once but a score of times.  And it had thrilled
her, unaccountably.  Yet, in spite of that, he was deserting
her in her moment of direst peril!

Then, through her soul surged the gloriously, divinely,
illogical Faith that is the God-given heritage of the woman
who loves.  And all at once she knew this man had not deserted
her, that right blithely he would lay down his life for her.
That, somehow or other, he had acted for her good.  And a
feeling of calm exultation filled her.

Hade stood in the doorway, barking sharp commands to several
of his men, calling to them by name.  And at each call, they
obeyed, like dogs at their master's bidding.  They dashed off
the veranda, in varying directions, at a lurching run, in
belated pursuit of the fleeing Brice.

Then, for the first time, Hade faced about and confronted the
unflinching girl and Standish who had lumbered dazedly out of
the library and who stood blinking at Claire's side.

Lifting his yachting cap, with exaggerated courtesy, Hade
bowed to them.  The eternal smile on his face was intensified,
as he glanced from one to the other of the pair.

"Well," he said, and his black eyes strayed as if by accident
to Claire's face, "our heroic friend seems to have cracked
under the strain, eh?  Cut and ran, like a rabbit.  Frankly,
my dear Milo, you'd do better to put your reliance on me.  A
man who will run away,--with a woman looking on, too--and
leaving you both in the lurch, after promising to--"

There was a clatter on the veranda, and Roke's enormous bulk
shouldered its way through what was left of the group of
sailors, his roustabout costume at ugly variance with their
neat attire.

"Did you find him?" demanded Hade, turning at the sound.

"No!" panted Roke, in keen excitement.  "But we'd better clear
out, Boss!  All Dade County's liable to be here in another
five minutes.  The old Ghost Tree's on fire.  Listen!  You can
hear--"

He finished his staccato speech by lifting his hand for
silence.  And, in the instant's hush could be heard the
distant roar of a million flames.

"He didn't desert us!" cried the girl, in ecstatic triumph.
"I knew he didn't!  I knew it!  He--"

But Hade did not stop to hear her.  At a bound he reached the
veranda and was on the lawn below, running around the side of
the house with his men trailing at his heels.

Out in the open, he halted, staring aghast at the column of
fire that soared heavenward and filled the night with lurid
brightness.  Back to him, one by one, came the four sailors he
had sent in pursuit of Gavin.  And, for a space, all stood
gazing in silence at the awesome spectacle.

Roke broke the spell by tugging at Hade's coat, and urging
eagerly:

"Best get out, at the double-quick, Boss!  This blaze is due
to bring folks a-runnin', an'--!"

"Well?" inquired Hade, impatiently.  "What then?  They'll find
us looking at a burning tree.  Is there any law against that?
I brought you and the crew ashore, to-night, to help shift
some heavy furniture that came from up North last week.  On
the way, we saw this tree and stopped to look at it.  Where's
the crime in that?  You talk like a--"

"But if the Standishes blab--"

"They won't.  That Secret Service sneak has bolted.  Without
him to put backbone in them, they'll eat out of my hand.
Don't worry.  They--"

"Here comes some of the folks, now," muttered Roke, as running
figures began to appear from three sides.  "We'd be safer to--"

His warning ended in a gurgle of dismay.

From three points the twenty-five or thirty new arrivals
continued to run forward.  But, at a word from some one in
front of them, they changed their direction, and wheeled in
triple column, almost with the precision of soldiers.

The shift of direction brought them converging, not upon the
tree, but upon the group of sailors that stood around Hade.
It was this odd change of course which had stricken Roke dumb.

And now he saw these oncomers were not farmhands or white-clad
neighbors, and that there were no women among them.  They were
men in dark clothes, they were stalwart of build and
determined of aspect..  There was a certain confident teamwork
and air of professionalism about them that did not please Roke
at all.  Again, he caught at his master's arm.  But he was too
late.

Out of nothingness, apparently, darted a small figure,
directly behind the unsuspecting Hade.  It was as though he
had risen from the earth itself.

With lightning swiftness, he attached himself to Rodney's
throat and right arm, from behind.  Hade gave a convulsive
start, and, with his free hand reached back for his pistol.
At the same time Roke seized the dwarfish stranger.

Then, two things happened, at once.

Roke wallowed backward, faint with pain and with one leg numb
to the thigh, from an adroit smiting of his instep.  The
little assailant's heel had come down with trained force on
this nerve center.  And, for the moment, Roke was not only in
agony but powerless.

The second thing to happen was a deft twist from the
imprisoning arm that was wrapped around Hade's throat from
behind.  At the pressure, Rodney's groping hand fell away from
his pistol pocket, and he himself toppled, powerless, toward
the ground, the skilled wrench of the carotid artery and the
nerves at the side of the throat paralyzing him with pain.

Roke, rolling impotently on the earth, saw the little fellow
swing Hade easily over his shoulder and start for the house.
At the same time, he noted through his semi-delirium of agony
that the stalwart men had borne down upon the knot of gaping
sailors, and, at pistol-muzzle, had disarmed and handcuffed
them.

It was all over in less than, fifteen seconds.  But not before
Roke's beach combing wits could come to the aid of his
tortured body.  Doubling himself into a muscular ball, he
rolled swiftly under the shadow of a sprawling magnolia
sapling, crouching among the vine roots which surround it.
There, unobserved, he lay, hugging the dark ground as
scientifically as any Seminole, and moving not an eyelash.

From that point of vantage, he saw the dark-clothed men line
up their sullen prisoners and march them off to the road,
where, a furlong below, the fire revealed the dim outlines of
several motor cars.  Other men, at the direction of the same
leader who had commanded the advance, trooped toward the
house.  And, as this leader passed near the magnolia, Roke
knew him for Gavin Brice.

From the edge of the veranda, Claire and Standish had
witnessed the odd drama.  Wordless, stricken dumb with
amazement, they gazed upon the fire-illumined scene.  Then,
toiling across the grass toward them came the little man who
had overcome Rodney Hade.  On his shoulders, as unconcernedly
as if he were bearing a light sack, he carried the inert body
of his victim.  Straight past the staring brother and sister
he went, and around the house to the front steps.

Milo started to follow.  But Claire pointed toward a clump of
men who were coming along not far behind the little burden-bearer.
At their head, hurried some one whose figure was silhouetted
against the waning tree-glare.  And both the watchers recognized
him.

Nearing the veranda, Brice spoke a few words to the men with
him.  They scattered, surrounding the house.  Gavin came on
alone.  Seeing the man and girl above him, he put his hands up
to the rail and vaulted lightly over it, landing on the floor
beside them.

"Come!" he said, briefly, leading the way around the porch to
the front door.

They followed, reaching the hallway just in time to see the
little man deposit his burden on the couch.  And both of them
cried-out in astonishment.  For the stripling who had reduced
Rodney Hade to numb paralysis was Sato, their own recreant
Japanese butler.

At sight of them, he straightened himself up from the couch
and bowed.  Then, in flawless English,--far
different from the pigeon-talk he had always used for their
benefit,--he said respectfully, to Gavin:

"I brought him here, as you said, sir.  He's coming around,
all right.  After the pressure is off the carotid, numbness
doesn't last more than two minutes."

"Sato!" gasped Claire, unbelieving, while Milo gurgled,
wordless.  The erstwhile butler turned back to the slowly
recovering Hade.  Brice laughed at their crass astonishment.

"This is one of the best men in the Service," he explained.
"It was he who took a job under Hade and who got hold of that
raised check.  Hade passed him on to you, to spy for him.
He--"

"But," blithered Standish, "I saw him tackle Hade, before all
the crew.  He was playing with death.  Yet, when you tackled
him, this evening, he was scared helpless."

"He was 'scared' into coming into the room and asking in
Japanese for my orders," rejoined Brice.  "I gave the orders,
when you thought I was airing my Jap knowledge by bawling him
out.  I told him to collect the men we'd posted, to phone for
others, and to watch for the signal of the burning tree.  If
the Caesars weren't going to attack in force, I saw no need in
filling the house with Secret Service agents.  But if they
should attack, I knew I could slip out, as far as that tree,
without their catching me.  When Hade's tea-party arrived,
instead, I gave the signal.  It was Sato who got my message
across to the key, this morning, too.  As for my pitching him
out of here, this evening,--well, it was he who taught me all
I know of jiu-jutsu.  He used to be champion of Nagasaki.  If
he'd chosen to resist, he could have broken my neck in five
seconds.  Sato is a wonder at the game."

The Jap grinned expansively at the praise.  Then he glanced at
Hade and reported:

"He's getting back his powers of motion, sir.  He'll be all
right in another half-minute."

Rodney Hade sat up, with galvanic suddenness, rubbing his
misused throat and darting a swift snakelike glance about him.
His eye fell on the three men between him and the door.  Then,
at each of the two hallway windows, he saw other men posted,
on the veranda.  And he understood the stark helplessness of
his situation.  Once more the masklike smile settled on his
pallid face.

"Mr. Hade," said Brice, "for the second time this evening, I
beg to tell you you are my prisoner.  So are your crew.  The
house is surrounded.  Not by Caesars, this time, but by
trained Secret Service men.  I warn you against trying any
charlatan tricks on them.  They are apt to be hasty on the
trigger, and they have orders to shoot if--"

"My dear Brice," expostulated Hade, a trifle wearily, "if we
were playing poker, and you held four aces to my two
deuces--would you waste breath in explaining to me that I was
hopelessly beaten?  I'm no fool.  I gather that you've marched
my men off to jail.  May I ask why you made an exception of
me?  Why did you bring me back here?"

"Can't you imagine?" asked Brice.  "You say you're no fool.
Prove it.  Prove it by--"

"By telling you where I have cached as much of the silver as
we've jettisoned thus far?" supplemented Hade.  "Of course,
the heroic Standish will show you where the Caesar cache is,
down there in the inlet.  But I am the only man who knows
where the three-quarter million or more dollars already
salvaged, are salted down.  And you brought me here to argue
me into telling?  May I ask what inducements you offer?"

"Certainly," said Gavin, without a moment's hesitation.
"Though I wonder you have not guessed them."

"Lighter sentence, naturally," suggested Hade.  "But is that
all?  Surely it's a piker price for Uncle Sam to pay for a
gift of nearly a million dollars.  Can't you better it?"

"I am not the court," returned Brice, nettled.  "But I think I
can promise you a fifty per cent reduction in what would be
the average sentence for such an offense, and a lighter job in
prison than falls to the lot of most Federal criminals."

"Good," approved Hade, adding: "But not good enough.  I'm
still in the thirties.  I'm tougher of constitution than I
look.  They can't sentence me for more than a span of years.
And when my term is up, I can enjoy the little batch of 1804
dollars I've laid by.  I think I'll take my chance, unless you
care to raise the ante."

Brice glanced around at the men who stood on the veranda.
Then he lowered his voice, so as not to be heard by them.

"You are under courtmartial sentence of death as a spy, Mr.
Hade," he whispered.  "The war is over.  That sentence won't
be imposed, in full, I imagine, in times of peace.  But your
war record will earn you an extra sentence that will come
close to keeping you in Atlanta Penitentiary for life.  I
believe I am the only member of the Department who knows that
Major Heidenhoff of the Wilhelmstrasse and Rodney Hade are the
same man.  If I can be persuaded to keep that knowledge from
my superiors, in return for full information as to where the
1804 dollars are cached--those you've already taken from the
inlet--and if the mortgage papers on this place are
destroyed--well--?"

"H'm!" mused Hade, his black eyes brooding and speculative.
"H'm!  That calls for a bit of rather careful weighing.  How
much time will you give me to think it over and decide?  A
week?"

"Just half an hour," retorted Gavin.  "My other men, who took
your silly band of cutthroats to jail, ought to be back by
then.  I am waiting here till they report, and no longer.  You
have half an hour.  And I advise you to make sane use of it."

Hade got slowly to his feet.  The smile was gone from his
lips.  His strange black eyes looked indescribably tired and
old.  There was a sag to his alert figure.

"It's hard to plan a coup like mine," he sighed, "and then to
be bilked by a man with not one-tenth my brain.  Luck was with
you.  Blind luck.  Don't imagine you've done this by your
wits."

As he spoke he shuffled heavily to the adjoining music-room, and
let his dreary gaze stray toward its two windows.  On the veranda,
framed in the newly unshuttered window-space, stood four Secret
Service men, grimly on guard.

Hade strode to one window after the other, with the cranky
mien and action of a thwarted child, and slammed the shutters
together, barring out the sinister sight of his guards.  Gavin
did not try to prevent him from this act of boyish spite.  The
master-mind's reaction, in its hour of brokenness, roused his
pity.

From the windows, Hade's gloomy eyes strayed to the piano.  On
it lay a violin case.  He picked it up and took out an
age-mellowed violin.

"I think clearer when I play," he said, glumly, to Brice.
"And I've nearly a million dollars' worth of thinking to do in
this half hour.  Is it forbidden to fiddle?  Milo's father
paid $4,000 for this violin.  It's a genuine Strad.  And it
gives me peace and clear vision.  May I play, or--?"

"Go ahead, if you want to," vouchsafed Gavin, fancying he read
the attempt of a charlatan to remain picturesque to the end.
"Only get your thinking done, and come to a decision before
the half hour is up.  And, by the way, let me warn you again
that those men out there have orders to shoot, if you make a
move to escape."

"No use in asking you to play my accompaniments, Claire?"
asked Hade, in pathetic attempt at gayety as he walked to the
hallway door.  "No?  I'm sorry.  Nobody else ever played them
as you do."

He tried to smile.  The effort was a failure.  He yanked the
curtains shut that hung between music room and hall.  Then,
at a gesture from Gavin, he pulled them halfway open again, and,
standing in the doorway, drew his bow across the strings.

Gavin sat down on the long hall couch, a yard outside the
music-room door, beside Claire and the still stupefied Milo.
The Jap took up his position back of them, alert and tense as
a fox terrier.  The three Secret Service men in the front
doorway stood at attention, yet evidently wondering at the
prisoner's queer freak.

From under the deftly wielded bow, the violin wailed forth
into stray chords and phrases, wild, unearthly, discordant.
Hade, his face bent over the instrument, swayed in time with
its undisciplined rhythm.

Then, from dissonance and incoherence, the music merged into
Gounod's Ave Maria.  And, from swaying, Hade began to walk.
To and fro, urged by the melody, his feet strayed.  Now he was
in full view, between the half-open curtains.  Now, he was
hidden for an instant, and then he was crossing once more
before the opening.

His playing was exquisite.  More--it was authoritative,
masterly, soaring.  It gripped the hearers' senses and
heartstrings.  The beauty and dreaminess of the Ave Maria
flooded the air with loveliness.  Brice listened, enthralled.
Down Claire's cheek rolled a teardrop, of whose existence she
was not even aware.

The last notes of the melody throbbed away.  Brice drew a long
breath.  Then, at once the violin spoke again.  And now it sang
forth into the night, in the Schubert Serenade,--gloriously sweet,
a surge of passionate tenderness.

Back and forth, under the spell of his own music, wandered
Hade.  Then he stopped.  Gavin leaned forward.  He saw that
Hade was leaning against the piano, as he played.  His head
was bowed over the instrument as though in reverence.  His
black eyes were dreamy and exalted.  Gavin sat back on the
couch and once more gave himself over to the mystic
enthrallment of the music.  The Serenade wailed itself into
silence with one last hushedly exquisite tone.  Brice drew a
long breath, as of a man coming out of a trance.

Simon Cameron had jumped into Claire's lap.  But, receiving no
attention from the music-rapt girl, the cat now dropped to the
floor, and started toward the stairs.

At the same time, the violin sounded anew.  And Gavin frowned
in disappointment.  For, no longer was it singing its heart
out in the magic of an immortal melody.  Instead, it swung
into the once-popular strains of "Oh, Promise Me!"

And now it seemed as though Hade were wantonly making fun of
his earlier beautiful playing and of the effect he must have
known it had had upon his hearers.  For he played heavily,
monotonously, more like a dance-hall soloist than a master.
And, as though his choice of an air were not sharp enough
contrast to his other selections, he strummed amateurishly and
without a shred of technique or of feeling.

Jarring as was the result upon Brice, it seemed even
more so on Simon Cameron.  The cat had stopped in his progress
toward the stairs, and now stared round-eyed at the music-room
doorway, his absurd little nostrils sniffing the air.  Then,
deliberately, Simon Cameron walked to the doorway and sat down
there, his huge furry tail curled around round him, staring
with idiotic intentness at the player.

Gavin noted the cat's odd behavior.  Simon Cameron was far too
familiar with Hade's presence in the house to give Rodney a
second glance.  Indeed, he had only jumped up into Claire's
lap, because the fascinatingly new Secret Service men at the
front door smelt strongly of tobacco,--the smell a Persian cat
hates above all others.  But now, he was gazing in delighted
interest at the violinist.

At the sight, a wild conjecture flashed into Gavin's brain.
With a sharp order to the Jap, he sprang up and rushed into
the music room.

Leaning against the piano, playing the rebellious violin, was--Roke!

Rodney Hade had vanished.

The windows were still shuttered.  No other door gave exit
from the music room.  There were no hangings, except the
door-curtains, and there was no furniture behind which a child
could hide unseen.  Yet Hade was no longer there.

Roke laid aside his violin, at sight of Gavin and the Jap.  At
the former's exclamation of amaze, two more of the Secret
Service men left their post at the front door and ran in.  The
tramp of their hurrying feet made the guards outside the open
windows of the music room fling wide the closed shutters.
Clearly, Hade had not escaped past them.

Folding his arms, and grinning impudently at the astounded
cordon of faces, Roke drawled:

"I just dropped in to say 'Howdy' to Mr. Standish.  Nobody was
around.  So I made bold to pick up the fiddle and have a
little spiel.  I ain't done any harm, and there's nothing
you-all can hold me on."

For ten seconds nobody answered.  Nobody spoke or moved.
Then, Gavin Brice's face went crimson with sudden fury at his
own outwitting.  He recalled the musical afternoon at
Roustabout Key which his presence had interrupted, and Roke's
fanatical devotion to Hade.

"I begin to understand," he said, his voice muffled in an
attempt to subdue his anger.  "You and Hade were fond of the
violin, eh?  And for some reason or other you long ago worked
up a series of signals on it, as the mind-reader with the
guitar-accompanist used to do in the vaudeville shows.  Those
discordant phrases he started off with were your signal to
come to the rescue.  And you came.  But how did you come?  And
how did he go?  Both by the same way, of course.  But--there
isn't even a chimney-piece in the room."

Once more, Roke grinned broadly.  "I ain't seen hide nor hair
of Mr. Hade, not since this afternoon," said he.  "I been
spendin' the evenin' over to Landon's.  Landon is a tryin' to
sell me his farm.  Says the soil on it is so rich that he
ships carloads of it up North, to use for fertilizer.  Says--"

"Sato!" broke in Brice.  "Can you make him talk?  Miss
Standish, will you please go somewhere else for five minutes?
This is not going to be a pretty sight."

As the girl turned, obediently yet reluctantly, from the room,
the Jap, with a smile of perfect bliss on his yellow face,
advanced toward Roke.

The big man wheeled, contemptuously, upon him.  Sato sprang at
him.  With a hammerlike fist, Roke smote at the oncoming
pigmy.  The arm struck, to its full length.  But it did not
reach its mark, nor return to the striker's side.  By a
queerly crablike shift of his wiry body, the Jap had eluded
the blow, and had fastened upon the arm, above the elbow and
at the wrist.

A cross-pull wrench of the Jap's body brought a howl of pain
from Roke and sent him floundering helplessly to his knees,
while the merest leverage pressure from his conqueror held him
there.  But the Jap was doing more.  The giant's arm was
bending backward and sideways at an impossible angle.  Nor
could its owner make a move to avert the growing unbearable
torture.  It was one of the simplest, yet one of the most
effective and agonizing, holds in all jiujutsu.

Thirty seconds of it, and Roke's bull-like endurance went to
pieces under the strain.  Raucously and blubberingly he
screeched for mercy.  The Jap continued happily to exert the
cross-pull pressure.

"Will you speak up?" queried Brice, sickened at the sight, but
steeling himself with the knowledge of the captive's crimes
and of the vast amount at stake.

Roke rolled his eyes horribly, grinding his yellowed teeth
together to check his own cries.  Then, sobbingly, he blurted:

"Yes!  Lemme loose!"

"Not till you tell," refused Gavin.  "Quick, now!"

"Second panel from left-hand window," moaned the stricken and
anguished Roke.  "Push beading up and then to right.  He's--he's
safe away, by now, anyway," he blubbered, in self-justification
of the confession which agony had wrung from him.  "All you'll
get is the--the--"

And, the pain having eaten into his very brain, he yelled
incoherently.

Ten minutes later, Milo Standish sought out his sister, in the
upper room whither she had fled, in fear, to escape from the
racket of Roke's outcries.


"Listen!" he jabbered boyishly, in utter excitement.  "Brice
made him tell how Rodney got out!  How d'you s'pose?  One of
the old panels, in the music room, slides back, and there's a
flight of stone steps down to a cellar that's right alongside
our regular cellar, with only a six inch cement-and-lath wall
between.  It leads out, to the tunnel.  Right at that turn
where the old-time shoring is.  The shoring hides a little
door.  And we never dared move the props because we thought it
held up the tunnel-roof.  It's all part of the old
Indian-shelter stunts that this house's builders were so daft
about, a hundred years ago.  Hade must have blundered on it or
studied it out, one of those times when he used to go poking
around in the tunnel, all by himself.  And--"

"Did Mr. Brice find him?" interposed Claire.

"Not he!" said Milo, less buoyantly.  "Rodney had a good ten
minutes start of us.  And with a start like that, they'll never
lay hands on him again.  He's got too much cleverness and he
knows too many good hiding places.  But Brice found the next best
thing.  You'd never guess!  Rodney's secret cache for the treasure
was that walled-up cellar.  It's half full of canvas bags.  Right
under our feet, mind you, and we never knew a thing about it.  I
supposed he was shipping it North in some way.  Roke says that
Rodney kept it there because, when he got it all, he was going to
foreclose and kick us out, and then dispose of it at his leisure.
The swine!"

"Oh!"

"The crypt seems to have been a part of our own cellar till it
was walled off.  It--"

"But how in the world did Roke?"

"He was with the crew.  Rodney and he went together to the
yacht for them.  The Secret Service men didn't get him, in the
round-up.  He crept as close to the house as he dared.  And he
heard Rodney sounding the signal alphabet they had worked up,
on the violin.  He got into the tunnel and so to the cellar,
and then sneaked up, and took Rodney's place at fiddling.  He
seems to have been as willing to sacrifice himself for his
master as any dog would have been.  Or else he counted on
Brice's not having any evidence to hold him on.

"By the way, do you remember that conch, Davy, over at
Roustabout Key?  Brice says he's a Secret Service man.  He and
Brice used to fish together, off the keys, when they were
boys.  Davy volunteered for the war.  And Brice made good use
of him, over there, and got him into the Secret Service when
they came back.  It's all so queer--so--!"

"Is Mr. Brice still downstairs?" interrupted Claire, her eyes
straying involuntarily toward the door of the room.

"No.  He had to go.  He left his good-byes for you.  His work
here is done.  And he has to start for Washington on the 2
A.M. train from Miami.  By the way, the best part of it all
is that he says a fugitive from justice can't bring legal
proceedings in a civil court.  So Rodney can never foreclose
on us or take up those notes of mine.  Lord, but that chap,
Brice, is a wonder!"

Vital as was the news about the notes and the mortgage, Claire
scarce heard it.  In, her ears, and through the brain and
heart of her, rang drearily the words:

"He had to go.  He left his good-byes for you.  His work here
is done."

His work was done!  Yes.  But was that to be all?  Had the
light in his eyes and the vibrant tremor in his voice as he
talked with her--had these been part of his "work," too?  Was
it all to end, like this,--and before it had begun?

To her own surprise and to her brother's greater astonishment,
the usually self-contained Claire Standish burst into a
tempest of weeping.

"Poor, poor little girl!" soothed Milo.  "It's all been too
much for you!  No one could have stood up under such a strain.
I'll tell you what we're going to do: We're going to Miami,
for a week or two, and have a jolly time and make you try to
forget all this mystery and excitement.  We'll go to-morrow
morning, if you say so."


The Miami season was at its climax.  The half-moon driveway
outside the front entrance to the Royal Palm Hotel was crowded
thick with waiting motor cars, whose occupants were at the
hotel's semi-weekly dance.  On the brightlit front veranda men
in white and in dinner-clothes and women in every hue of
evening dress were passing to and fro.  Elderly folk, sitting
in deep porch chairs, watched through the long windows the
gayly-moving dancers in the ballroom.  Out through wide-open
doors and windows pulsed the rhythmic music.

Above hung the great white stars in the blue-black Southern
skies.  The bay stretched glimmering and phosphorescent away
from the palm-girt hotel gardens.  The trade-winds set the
myriad dry palm-fronds to rustling like the downpour of summer
rain.

Up the steps from the gardens drifted promenaders and dancers,
in groups or in twos and threes.  Then, up the stairway moved
a slender, white-clad figure, alone.

Claire Standish had sought to do as her brother had wished,
and to forget, in the carefree life of the White City, the
happenings she had been through.  Dutifully she had come to
Miami with him.  Dutifully, for the past three days, she had
joined him in such gayeties as he had suggested.  Dutifully,
to-night, she had come with him to this dance.  And all the
time her heart had been as heavy as lead.

Now, getting rid of her partner on some pretext, she had gone
out into the softly illumined gardens to be alone with the
yearning and heartache she could not shake off.  Then, fearing
lest Milo, or some other of the men she knew, might come in
search of her and wonder at her desire to mope alone under the
stars, she had turned back to the hotel.

As she mounted the last stair to the veranda, a man in dinner
clothes stepped forward from one of the porch's great white
pillars, and advanced to meet her.

"There's a corner table at the Cafe de la Paix, in Paris," he
greeted her, striving to control his voice and to speak
lightly, "that every one on earth must pass by, sooner or
later.  The front veranda of the Royal Palm is like that.
Soon or late, everybody crosses it.  When I got back this
afternoon, I heard you had left home and that you were
somewhere in Miami.  I couldn't find you.  So I came here--and
waited."

Claire had halted, at first sound of Gavin Brice's pleasantly
slow voice, and she stood facing him, wide-eyed and pale, her
breath failing.

"I had to go to Washington to make my report," said he,
speaking low and fast.  "I came back to you by the first train
I could catch.  Didn't you know I would?"

"Yes," she breathed, her gaze still lost in his.  "Yes.  I--I
knew."

And now she realized she had known, even while she had told
herself she would never see him again.

"Come!" he said, gently, holding out his hand to her.

Unashamed, under the battery of a hundred curious eyes, she
clasped the proffered hand.  And, together, they turned back
toward the sheltering dimness of the gardens.



THE END





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