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