"Wonder how they got those soil men to put their names on the reports?"
"Senator Fairclothe, I suppose. You can get men from Washington who can't be got any other way. What I'm wondering about is who's big enough to get him."
"Did you ever know of a politician with a big name who was ever anything but a figurehead in a deal of this sort?"
"I guess you're right."
"It's the name and the reputation and the man's official standing that's valuable. Senator Fairclothe may be crooked—I don't say he is; but he isn't a fool politically, at least. No man gets a stranglehold on his state and an inside standing in Washington and keeps it year after year as he has done without being some shrewd as a politician. It's a one-hundred-to-one bet that he's never seen this lake that his company is selling as farms. He might be willing to do something as crooked as that, but he wouldn't be so foolish. Understand?
"It would be taking too big a risk. He'd be afraid that his political opponents would get next. If they did, they'd get some swindled buyer to start action against him, just before an election. My guess is that Fairclothe doesn't know a thing about what this tract is. He's been got by somebody, as the soil experts were got; and I'm wondering who it is that's big enough to get him. It must be somebody pretty big; but whoever it is, that's the gang or the man I'm going to talk business with."
"Make 'em cough up your money, eh? They'll probably do it—to keep your mouth shut."
"They can't keep my mouth shut now."
"Nor mine. It's too rotten, too—rotten."
"You're right, Hig. And I don't know whether I want to just take my money back and clear out—even if they'd offer it to me."
"Well"—Higgins' chuckle came forth sleepily—"it might be made something of at that.—Alligators? No. Fish? No. There's the water buffalo. That's never been tried down here. Hah! I see a fortune in it. 'Buy a wonderful Water Buffalo Ranch and Get Rich Quick. He Lives on Water. Have We Got Lots of it? Ask Us!'—How does that hit you for advertising matter?—Form a stock corporation; get a picture of a Philippine buffalo; and sell stock for all the money a sucker's got. Of course there aren't any water buffalos here; but neither is there any land; and that doesn't keep them from selling it just the same."
"There is land here—under the water."
"Yes. Pretty good, too—under the water."
"Water can be drained off."
"Sure. But—well, we'll look her over in the morning, Payne. Hey, Willy High Pockets! Touch up that fire a little."
But Willy High Pockets was snoring. Higgins rolled out, replenished the fire and soon followed the Indian's example.
Payne did not go to sleep for a long time. It was not the sensuously whispering night with its mistlike darkness and near-by stars that kept him awake. Nor was it the splash of an otter, of minks and the sounds of other animals of the darkness. The deep eyes of the girl of the morning were the lights that he saw as he lay staring up at the palmetto tops; and what sent his blood racing too swiftly for sleep was the memory of her flushed face and tossing hair as she had defied her aunt and Ramos in order to help two men whom she had seen for only a few minutes before.
Payne had roamed much and had never had any thought or feelings for a new country save as a scene for his activity, for achievement. He had never loved. As he lay on his rude couch under the open sky and realized how mistaken was his investment he wondered why he did not feel unduly depressed or disturbed. He had made a poor business deal, and good business sense dictated that he should try to get out of it with as little loss as possible and get into something new. The spirit of business adventure in him, which constantly urged him to seek new fields for his ventures, had led him to make mistakes ere this.
He had never wasted time upon his errors, either in deploring them or in deceiving himself that he could turn them to advantage, but had promptly put them behind him, credited something to experience, and started anew upon the road of achievement. This was what he should do now. Better to lose his investment than waste his time upon a doubtful if not hopeless proposition. But when he recalled the unanswered questions which the girl had directed at her aunt, he knew that in this instance he was not going to do anything of the sort. Having accepted this as a fact he closed his eyes to the soft, intimate stars above the palmettos and went to sleep.
In the morning, when the water and grass were still vivid with the reflection of the multi-colored dawn, Payne and Higgins were out in Willy High Pockets' canoe, cruising the thousand acres Payne had bought. The piece lay mainly to the southwest of Deer Hammock.
"That hammock is the northeast corner post of the Prairie Highlands Company's land," said Payne, studying his map. "I got the corner thousand in a square chunk. Do you see a pine wood, Higgins?"
"There's something down there, straight west of the hammock that might be it."
Payne swept a westward line with his glasses and nodded. "Looks like it. A pine island, I suppose. Now the southern line runs to a growth of cypress, two of immense size. I can pick them out too. We'll go down the south line first."
Halfway toward the cypress trees the dugout grounded hopelessly, and they left it and waded through six inches of water the remainder of the distance.
"They're honest about their marks at least," said Payne when they had reached the trees. "But they didn't say anything about the cypress being in an unholy swamp."
"Holy smoked fish, what a country!" muttered Higgins as he peered into the dark recesses of the densely wooded swamp. "What a place to hide out in if a fellow wanted to drop out of the world. Say, I guess this is the same swamp our friend Davis went paddling into yesterday. Well, she lies lower than your lake, notice that?"
"So it does. I thought I had the lowest land in the world, but this swamp's got mine beat."
"A ditch in the swamp running into the river might drain your piece some. Have to be some dig, but you could afford to do it on a thousand-acre proposition. It's something to figure on."
Payne made no reply but led the way to the dugout and headed across the water for the bunch of pines marking his northwestern corner.
"There isn't as much water on it as I thought," he said as the canoe stuck again as they approached the pines.
"No; it's only the middle that's really drowned. Wonder what the bottom's like."
Higgins thrust his paddle tentatively into the bottom. "Well, I'll be damned!" The blade of the paddle had slipped easily into the ground. Higgins pushed on the handle, pushed the paddle three feet into soil, withdrew it and held it up for inspection. "Muck! Three foot of black muck, and I wasn't near touching bottom!"
Together they began to probe, and everywhere with the same result. The muck underneath the water ran from three to five feet in depth, and was as black as peat.
The water grew shallower as they went westward and presently gave way to dry land covered with a growth of saw grass through which they literally had to push their way. The saw grass ended abruptly, and the last hundred yards to the pines they walked on high and dry land. The pines were on the eastern edge of the great prairie which they had glimpsed on their walk up the river.
As they paddled back to the hammock for the breakfast which they had left the Seminole to prepare Payne studied the land to the northward with keen interest. A heavier growth than saw grass covered this land. On closer inspection it proved to be a jungle of elderberry, the growth so dense that a man could barely squeeze through. The land here was higher and dry, and black muck of the same depth as on the drowned land to the south. Payne paddled back to Deer Hammock in silence. Just as they were about to land he drove his paddle into the bottom with a gesture of finality.
"Yes, sir! That high ground to the north is a watershed and it all drains off onto your land. That's what drowns it."
"Right. And I drain into that river."
"Yep. You can drain your piece all right. But it'll cost like sin; and that high elderberry ground up there will always be shedding water onto it."
"So all I need is to get hold of that piece up there."
"Hah! So that's what you were thinking about? Who owns it?"
"Not this crooked Prairie Company. It's owned by the Southern Cypress Company. They own so much land they probably don't know what they've got over here. We'll get breakfast and hustle back to a wire some place. I'll think it over. I may buy that piece. Then we'll have something to do business with."
"Well, you'd better hurry or your breakfast will be gone," spoke a voice from the hammock. "Willy Tiger had it all ready when we arrived."
Payne stepped from the canoe and strode toward the two men who were seated at the camp fire. One of them rose and he recognized the dark face of Ramos. Then he saw Willy Tiger's crumpled body lying like a sack of grain across one of the sleeping benches.
Payne looked at the man who had spoken, who remained seated. He looked at him steadily for a long while. Then he said: "My name is Payne. I guess you're Mr. Garman."
The seated man was nibbling a piece of venison on a broiling stick and did not look up.
He finished the venison, wiped his drooping, fawn-colored mustache with a silk handkerchief, displaying as he did so the two large diamonds upon his fingers; and through his heavy, yellow eyebrows he looked up lazily.
As he sat squatted there by the fire Garman's figure gave an impression of squatness and of grossness in proportions and flesh. The closely cropped head was of a size sufficient to dominate the huge body, and by the harsh salients of the jaws, the great forehead and the flat back head, gave evidence that but for its pink-fleshed rotundity the head might have appeared nearly square. The backs of the hands which drew the silk handkerchief delicately across the thick red lips beneath the drooping mustache were covered to the fingernails with a fell of thick yellow hair; only the fat white palms were bare, like the insides of a gorilla's paws.
"Payne, eh?" said Garman with a flash of white teeth showing through the mustache. "Pretty fair-sized boy. About my size when I was eighteen."
Higgins was turning Willy over on his back.
"My God! Look at him!" he cried, pointing to the Indian's swollen face with its protruding tongue and popeyes. "They've choked the poor devil to death! You cheap, dirty greaser!" he roared, turning upon his aversion, Ramos. "There was a good boy, that Indian; and if you've done him dirt I'll beat your greasy head off with your left leg!"
"Hold on, Hig!" Payne held his engineer back. "There's no sign of a hand on his throat."
"But look at his face! Can't you tell by that?"
Roger bent over the Indian and felt for a heartbeat.
"Is he?" laughed Garman. "That's important perhaps—to Willy."
"Get some water, Hig. That's the stuff; souse him. Ah! Didn't he breathe?"
"Tried to. Can't you pull his tongue down a little so he can git air?"
"Get some more water! He's breathing!"
"Hi, Willy!" cried Higgins, tilting the water against the distorted mouth. "Come to, old boy; come to!"
A few drops of the cooling stuff trickled into the Indian's throat, stirring the spark of life that was beginning to glow again in him. A tremor convulsed his chest as the lungs sucked spasmodically at the tiny stream of air entering the swollen throat. A gurgle, a deep sigh, and Willy's unconscious body was taking in the life-giving air in short gulps.
"By the great smoked fish, he'll make a live of it!" jubilated Higgins. "And the man who did it—don't care who he is—is one son of a she-skunk, net."
Garman, after his morsel of broiled venison, was lighting a large, brown cigar, moving the match round and round the tip to make sure it burned evenly. He drew in a long breath and, opening his mouth, allowed the fat smoke to ooze up through his mustache, into his wide-open nostrils, over his half-closed eyes.
"Willy Tiger is subject to fits—of a suffocating nature," he said. "He suffers from a too sensitive conscience. The fits come upon him when he has made a mistake and gets caught at it."
"He was choked!" said Payne bluntly. "He was suffocated in some damnable fashion that left no mark, and he would have been dead in another five minutes."
Garman nodded through another cloud of smoke.
"Five minutes! Sooner, perhaps. I thought he was dead. He is going to die in one of those fits some day, that's sure—if he lives to make more mistakes."
The Indian began to heave and pant as the force of reviving life wracked his body. Moans escaped from his lips, moans of agony, as if unconsciously he was protesting against the painful return to consciousness. And Garman smoked, artistically and with luxurious enjoyment, his attention concentrated upon his cigar, while Ramos watched the writhing Indian with a sneering smile to betray his enjoyment of the spectacle.
Presently Willy lay still, his breathing became easier and he opened his eyes. Higgins, the volatile, leaped back and swore at the indefinable horror in those eyes. Payne tightened his lips and laid an assuring hand on Willy's shoulder. A spasm of terror passed over the Indian's features as memory returned. He sprang to his feet, looking wildly round and saw Garman. Then he cowered, shrinking together as if striving to sink into the ground, to return to unconsciousness, terrified by some overwhelming, incomprehensible horror.
Garman continued his attention to his cigar. The heavy smoke lay in swaying clouds above his head. To judge by his expression Willy Tiger did not exist, save as an incident of the past. Through the curtain of smoke which oozed upward through his mustache at regular intervals, his eyes gleamed alert, interested, concentrated upon a problem compared to which Willy was only an infinitesimal insect.
Payne understood. Garman had dealt—possibly through Ramos—with Willy. Now his mind had turned to the problem of dealing with Payne and Higgins. His manner indicated complete confidence in his ability to settle the problem as he saw fit, betraying how completely he felt himself the master.
Payne controlled his own irritation at the other's attitude of superiority and sat down. Apparently unconscious of Garman's presence on the other side of the fire he sampled a strip of broiled venison, found it good and began to eat. Higgins presently followed his example. Save for the presence of Willy Tiger with the unspeakable horror in his eyes it might have been amicable hunting party at breakfast.
"I like that," said Garman finally. "Cool hand, Payne. You make yourself right to home."
"Why shouldn't I?" Roger waved his hand to the southward. "I own it."
"Yes; but you're in a hole just at present. How do you expect to get out of here?"
Payne finished his piece of venison and wiped his fingers.
"Garman," said he, "who are you? What are you? What are you butting in for?"
Garman's smoking paused for a moment and his fat, rosy countenance was suffused with a darker red.
"That was a bad break, Payne. I don't like it."
"I didn't think you would. I see you don't like the idea of my being here at all."
"In fact, you don't like the idea of anybody's coming up here and seeing this country, and you've taken quite elaborate precautions against anybody's doing so. I'll make a guess that there'll be trouble for somebody if you ever find out how we got in."
"Don't you trouble about that, Payne; you worry about how you're going to get out."
Payne paid no attention to this veiled threat, and continued:
"Also, I'll make a guess that you're one of the real big men in the Prairie Highlands Land Company, which sold me a lot of water for farm land."
"Well, it's this way, Mr. Garman; I've been stung and stung badly. That's all right; it's all in the game. I'm going to play the game out. There's pretty fair farm land under that water out there. I'm going to draw the water off."
Garman resumed his smoking. Suddenly he rose, an agile, powerful figure, graceful in spite of his huge bulk.
"It's a hard job you're tackling, Payne."
"But I'm tackling it."
"I see you are."
Garman turned to Willy and spoke swiftly in Seminole. Like a whipped schoolboy hurrying to obey an order, the Indian grasped his rifle, sprang into the dugout and in a flash was poling away from the hammocks as if his life depended upon it. Higgins sprang to the water's edge, but a word from Payne stopped him. When Willy's escape with the dugout was assured Ramos disappeared for a moment and returned leading two saddle horses which had been hidden in the brush of the hammock. Garman threw his huge body into the saddle with an easy spring and rode away toward the sand prairie.
"When you get tired of trying to find the way out," he called back, "come down to my camp and talk business."
"Why didn't you let me catch the Indian?" demanded Higgins when the riders were gone. "A man without a canoe here is almost as badly off as a man afoot in Death Valley."
"I realize that," agreed Roger. "But Garman had made up his mind that we weren't going to have that canoe."
"I had almost made up my mind we were going to have it."
"I saw that; that's why I stopped you."
"Well! After what happened on the river boat I didn't expect you to stop so easy."
"Those men on the boat were quite different from Garman. I knew they would take a bluff, or I'd never have let you pull your gun. If you had done the same here there would have been shooting or else you'd have had to put your gun away and back down. It's one thing to pull a gun on a bunch of river rats, and another on a man like Garman. I don't want any shooting round here."
"Neither do I."
"Then never make a gun move with Garman round. You can't beat a man like him with a gun."
"No, I'll say he's a real he-devil."
"I'm here on a business proposition. It's a question of brains, not guns, in a fight with Garman."
"And he's got a few of them too."
"Decidedly. Therefore, no rough work."
Higgins laughed skeptically.
"No rough work, eh? How about little Willy High Pockets? I've seen a few men here and there who've been manhandled, but I've never seen on with the fear of the devil driven into him as hard as Willy. What in the name of black hell could they have done to the poor buck?"
Payne shook his head.
"I give it up. Sorry, too, because I was responsible for his getting mixed up with us."
"Not entirely so."
Higgins refrained from mentioning the girl's connection with the matter, and Payne was grateful for his delicacy. Garman, of course, had learned that it was the girl of the Egret who had bidden Willy Tiger guide the two to their destination. How greatly this had angered Garman was apparent by the fashion in which he had visited punishment—whatever it had been—on the inoffensive Seminole. What was Garman to the girl?
"Poor Willy was the goat," said Higgins. "But go back a little: Garman seems to me to be the big boss of this district. Is that the way you figure it out?"
"There's a whole lot of hard-boiled eggs round here, and they're scared fightless about some one, and he's it. A man doesn't get that sort of a grip without rough work, and he's not pleased with your proposition here; and I don't see him changing his method much in dealing with you."
"Perhaps not. It's going to be hard for him to find an excuse though. I'm here on a business proposition, as I say, and business is going to be supreme on the job, and rough work a mere incident—if at all."
"Fair enough. What's your first move?"
"To find a way out of this country without troubling friend Garman."
"Sure. The dugout was the first answer. You let that go without winking an eyelid. That means you'd already figured out a second answer. What is it?"
Payne spread out his maps and consulted them carefully.
"Garman felt he had us sewed up tight because the average man who gets down here isn't a woodsman."
"Except that fellow, Davis, I haven't seen one who looked like it since we got here," agreed Higgins.
"Yep." Payne was drawing out a new large-scale survey map. "I don't think one of the old-time timber cruisers up North would call it too big a job to get out of here. There's water almost all the way over to the east coast—the maps agree on that—so that's no good. To the south is that cypress swamp. West we've got that sand prairie. Must be some trap there. But another thing the maps all agree on is that the old trading post of Legrue, which is the end of the railroad's survey line, is about forty-five miles north of this hammock."
"Sure. And look at what's between 'em—on the map there."
"The Devil's Playground."
"That's one of the spots down here nobody's been through."
"Well, Hig, I suspect you and I are going to be the first to try to do it. I know the descriptions read tough: great crevices in limestone formation filled with impassable liquid mud. We'll try it, though; we've got to."
Without a word Higgins began to cut up more venison, and Payne rebuilt the fire. After a substantial meal they roasted and packed two small bundles of meat for carrying and were ready for the start. Payne carefully searched the country about with his glasses and, assured that no skulking watchers were in sight, they waded out from the hammock and plunged into the elderberry jungle to the north.
From the first they had literally to break their way forward. The elder trees grew from ten to twelve feet in height and so close together that to squeeze between them was impossible. Payne went ahead at first, walking sidewise, throwing his shoulder against the brittle stems and crashing a path through. Higgins soon stepped to the fore and did likewise. At the end of an hour, when they had covered a scant mile, they paused.
They were now in the heart of the elder growth, hidden from all the rest of the world and isolated from anything that might have promised relief. In the branches innumerable large, glossy blackbirds kept up a maddening chatter, and higher above, up in the hot sky, the omnipresent buzzards floated lazily, awaiting sight of possible carrion prey. Animals began to appear almost underfoot, coons and rabbits, disturbed for the first time in their fastness. Water holes appeared rarely, and the water in them was unfit for drinking. Despite the shade it was stiflingly hot.
Higgins began to pant. He was broader and stockier than Payne and less favorably built for wedging his weight through the growth. Neither spoke a word. At the pauses they consulted compasses, laid out the trail straight north and drove on. Payne's breath also soon was coming in sharp pants; and the leg muscles of both began to weaken with the treacherous going. Grimly they held to their pace, waiting the release of fresh reservoirs of energy, the coming of the athlete's "second wind," to relieve them.
When it came they had need for it, for the jungle growth now was thicker. Heavy creepers and vines had appeared among the elder bushes, their phenomenal growth often matted thickly together as high as a man's waist. Bushes which formerly had given way at the thrust of a shoulder now hung toughly, suspended by the inextricable grip of the vines. Along the ground the matted creepers caught and clung tenaciously to ankles. The carpet of them hid with fair leaves and blossoms treacherous water holes into which the travelers plunged at times foot deep. In one such a plunge Payne's boots sent squirming a nest of slimy water moccasins. A moment later he slipped and all but fell on the hard slippery back of a hidden turtle.
A gleam of light in the solid growth ahead promised an open space for a rest and breathing spell. With a silent agreement they plunged straight for it. As they wedged their way into sight a flock of black buzzards rose lazily from something upon the ground, their wings barely lifting their gorged bodies, their foul red heads reeking with the putrid feast they were so loath to leave.
Higgins voiced his disgust in one swift curse, but Payne bored silently on in a wide circuit round the stench.
A broken trail in the jungle soon told the story. The tracks of a single steer were discernible, pointing toward the opening, and there were no tracks returning. The animal, lost in the thicket had fought its way out till, in the open space, its strength gone, it had collapsed.
Payne stopped at the animal's tracks.
"That steer came in from the west. It couldn't have come very far through this jam, so probably that cattle prairie isn't very far out that way. We could go out there. I suppose some of Garman's men would see us if we did. I don't like to have him know where we're bound for."
Higgins was silent.
The engineer's reply was to crash into the thicket, breaking the way; and Payne followed without more words.
At noon they dropped on a bed of vines which fairly smothered the brush, and ate sparingly of the venison they had brought; cautiously they dipped water from a deep root hole and barely wet their lips.
"Have we made four miles?" asked Higgins.
"Just about—less than a mile an hour. Better start again before we begin to stiffen."
They went on, resigned to a continuance of the morning struggle, unable to see far enough ahead to distinguish the country beyond. One moment they were in the grasp of the jungle, the next they had broken through and stood panting and wide-eyed on the edge of a realized paradise of dreams. It was a tiny lake bordered by a small, grass-grown prairie dotted with small clean clumps of palmetto, pine and cypress. The water of the lakelet was clear blue, and the grass round it waved softly. The palmettos grew in small circles and with the pines and cypress seemed like islands in a gentle sea; and each island held in its center a spring of cold clear water seeping up through a limestone bottom. Long, swaying streamers of Spanish moss hung from the pines; up in the cypress were the mysterious air plants with the scarlet orchids naming in their hearts. And beyond the prairie was a grove of custard apple swathed in the gentle, blooming moon vine.
"It was black!" said Payne firmly, when they had drunk carefully from the lake.
"That land we just came through."
"Black is right. First-class stuff."
"Worth the fight to find it—if it isn't already sold. Land fit for a man to spend his time and money to put in shape. Come on!"
They crossed the enchanted prairie with scarcely a word for its beauty and plunged into the grove beyond. The custard-apple trees ran to fifteen feet in height and twelve inches in diameter, but between their trunks was plenty of room for passage.
The grove gave way and they were up to their waists in a growth of thick, rank saw grass, its half-inch wide blades with sharp, serrated edges cutting the bare skin of their hands like knives. Far away on the northern horizon, beyond an apparently unbroken sea of grass, rose the ragged forest of a great swamp, its outlines sinister even at that distance.
For the rest of the afternoon they fought their way toward the trees. It was growing dark when they had won through. The ground beyond was lower than the saw-grass land and seemed to be composed of oozy slime. The growth that covered it was tangled and twisted as if thrown together by a mad burst of storms. Dark, sinister and threatening the interior loomed before them; and without needing to consult their maps they spoke as one: "The Devil's Playground!"
As they trod down the grass for a camping spot a streak of white gleamed in the gloomy nightmare of the garden and a flock of white egrets swept gracefully out into the gilding rays of the setting sun. A hundred in number, perhaps, they swerved in dignified fashion and in their ineffably beautiful posture of flying, necks gently bent backward and long legs trailing delicately, flew away to the west. They were beginning to rise for a long flight when a harsh rattle of shots broke the evening quiet. Pop-pop-pop! Repeating shotguns worked at full speed. The flock crumpled and broke and a score of the beautiful birds came crashing down in shapeless, broken lumps. And then, too late to prevent the crime, darkness was upon the scene.
Dawn revealed the interior of the Devil's Playground apparently less forbidding than in the gloaming, and Payne and Higgins plunged to their task as soon as breakfast was over. A hard spit of land ran northwest, from the saw grass and they followed it till it ended abruptly at a narrow gully filled to the brim with liquid mud. Swiftly and skillfully they bridged the space with saplings and branches, a process which they were forced to repeat at intervals throughout the forenoon. Luncheon they ate seated on cypress roots in water up to their knees; and soon after Higgins put a bullet between the yellow eyes of a panther which glared at them from its hiding place. Snakes and alligators were in abundance; for miles there was no sign of other life.
"They named it right," panted Higgins in a pause.
"Yes; come on!"
Now they had come to the "flowerpots" of the Playground, beautiful grass plots interwoven with delicate blooms and ringed about with water lilies. Into the first one Payne went with a splash to his armpits; the grass was only a treacherous skin above a hole of liquid mud, from which Higgins with difficulty drew his employer.
For an hour or more they threaded their way, cautiously between these beautiful traps. Then, they found themselves on the brink of a gully a hundred yards in width; and Payne, driving ahead at full speed, cried out in anguish as he realized how they were stopped.
"Hold on," said Higgins. "That ground on the other side is higher, and it looks to me like a different formation. Yes; it's limestone with sand on top. Cheer up!"
Payne threw a dry branch onto the mud and it sank immediately. Wearily he turned at right angles to the trail and led the way in a search for the end of the gully. For a mile they followed the barrier of mud, then Higgins called a halt. "Look at this formation." He pointed to a slight swell in the level monotony of the swamp. "If that showed in any human country I'd say it was the beginning of a little ridge."
The slight rise ran to the edge of the gully, where it was broken, and appeared again on the farther side of the mud.
"There's just a chance that it runs right through that mud," Higgins was probing into the slime with a broken branch. "Yep. Here it is, about five feet down. Ugh! Pretty little piece of wading, but unless I miss my guess it will be miles before we find another fording place through that mud. Wish Willy High Pockets was here. He's the boy who could show us how."
Payne looked at the span of slime between the banks.
"Do you think we'll be through if we get to the other bank?" he asked.
"Sure. This mess can't last forever. Hold on." Payne had stepped off into the breast-high mud. "What are you going to do?"
"See if this shallow runs all the way across."
"No you don't! Chances are there's a break in it in the middle and then you'd be all out of luck. I'll do the investigating."
"Stay right where you are; I'm boss." Payne was forcing his way out from shore. Halfway across he stopped, panting and exhausted from the task of driving through the clinging mud.
"No break?" called Higgins.
"No; solid so far."
"Then it's solid all the way across." Higgins leaped in and, profiting by the trail broken in the mud, came swiftly up to where Roger stood, took a desperate chance and fairly swam through the mud, and took the lead.
"I'll break trail the rest of the way. Now—both together!"
Pushing, pulling, falling and floundering they thrust on. The mud grew thicker, heavier, and each step in it now was an appalling effort. At last Higgins came to a stop. They were twenty feet from the farther bank and the mud had assumed the consistency of heavy clay.
"Stuck?" gasped Payne.
"No!" Higgins began to dig at the stuff with his hands.
"Cheer up!" he panted. "Get to bank—trouble's over."
They literally dug themselves forward for the rest of the way, the hideousness of their situation relieved only by the bank before their eyes and the hope of high ground held out by it. With the last bit of energy in them they freed themselves from the mud's suction and painfully crawled up the bank.
"Made it!" said Higgins, dropping flat on his face.
Payne raised himself on all fours and looked round through mud-caked eyes. And then he began to laugh in a way that brought Higgins' head up with a start. The high ground of the bank was a strip perhaps ten feet in width. Beyond it as far as they could see was a sea of mud similar to that which they had just wallowed through.
"We'll rest first, then we'll eat." Payne had instantly recovered control of himself. He let his weary body sink inert upon the ground, his face pillowed upon folded arms. Higgins followed his example. They were not insensible to the gravity of their situation. On the contrary it was their very realization of the ghastly nature of the trap into which they had floundered that prompted them to relax and lie like dead while their bodies recovered from the strain of fighting through the mud of the gully. Not for them the amateurish fault of going into a panic. Their situation was bad. It was very bad. Therefore the pair relaxed after the manner of tired men seeking complete rest, and so successful was Higgins, and so severe the exhaustion of his thick body, that presently he fell asleep.
Roger did not sleep. Neither did he worry. He did not even allow himself to contemplate the dire possibilities of the situation. He did not think; he refused to allow himself to think. He rested. But continuously in his ears there seemed to sound a mocking whisper, as faint as the rustle of wind in the saw grass.
"Devil's Playground, Devil's Playground! How d'you like it?"
Strength returned to his young body with the invincible resiliency of youth. He felt the strain ease in his tired limbs, felt the arteries resume their easy functioning and settled himself for more of a rest. At last he stretched himself slowly, luxuriously upon the ground, as an athlete, rejoicing in the strength of his body, might stretch himself before entering a terrific contest. Slowly he rolled over upon his back and opened his eyes. Above his head long streamers of delicate Spanish moss waved indolently from the branches of a cypress tree. It was an old tree and dead, and the moss seemed nothing more cheerful than a living shroud. A cardinal bird flickered its vivid body in and out of the moss with a startling effect; and halfway up on the trunk of the cypress a mocking touch in the somber scene, a blood-red orchid brazenly flaunted its proud beauty. And then, far above the tallest gray, sharp spire of the dead tree, high up in the warm blue heavens, appeared a single speck of black.
It floated there in a circle with no apparent effort, a black speck floating in a sea of sun-warmed blue. Its circle, in fact, was a leisurely downward spiral, and soon it appeared as a great, black buzzard, lazily drifting down from the heavens above. Down, down, down it came, its wings motionless, its gradual descent the movement of a creature gifted with infinite patience. Above the tree top it folded back its outspread wings, set its claws and dropped. It settled upon the sharp, gray spike at the top of the dead cypress and sat there, motionless as a thing of wood—waiting, waiting, waiting.
Other specks appeared against the blue of the sky. These specks did not move in a circle but came flapping grotesquely toward a central point. The scout of the buzzard flock had made his reconnoissance and by settling had signaled back his message. Nine other buzzards followed him and took up their patient watch upon the highest branches of the tall tree. Like black-shrouded, red-hooded ghouls they took their watch—waiting, waiting, waiting. A tenth bird fell like a bolt out of the sky and found itself a perch in a tree apart from the others. It was a small brown Mexican buzzard, the daring hawklike breed which does not wait till its prey is entirely dead.
Roger's movements had gradually awakened Higgins and the latter also rolled on his back and followed Payne's upward stare at the waiting buzzards.
"Pretty things, eh, Hig?"
"Sweet, I'd call 'em. Good waiters too. 'Take all the time you want, boys,' they're saying! 'We'll be here when you are all through.' How in the devil do they get next to things so quick?"
"Well, I suppose the signs of animal life in this neck of the woods aren't very plentiful. The sight of us must have been quite a treat to those birds."
"Sure. Look how confident they are. They've had experience with animals foolish enough to straggle off in here. They look like they're going to sleep. 'Boys,' they're saying, 'we'll take a little nap now. But don't worry; you won't lose us; we'll be with you to the end and then some!'"
The small Mexican buzzard, less patient than the larger scavenger birds, flopped halfway down from his branch, swooped over the two recumbent figures and swung upward to a new perch.
"Take your time, old boy!" said Higgins. "You don't eat just yet."
"We do!" Payne raised his legs high in the air and leaped to his feet without touching hands or body on the ground. Higgins essayed the same athletic feat and came down with a crash on his haunches.
"No, I haven't got the spring in me that he has," he addressed the buzzards, "but don't you get too hopeful. I'll last a long time; thick men always do."
"We'll warm up some of our venison, Hig," said Payne as he gathered dry sticks for a fire. "Our next move is to stoke ourselves to the bursting point. Then we'll rest some more while our internal machinery converts the venison into rich, red pep; and then we'll be ready to take a look round."
As Higgins warmed the strips of broiled venison over the fire he cast a glance now and then at the buzzards.
"Huh! I don't like that," he growled as he saw the birds unmoved by the odor of broiling meat.
"Don't like what?" asked Payne.
"Those birds have got first-class smellers," replied Higgins, "and they're getting the tempting odor of this frying meat right now. Do you see it excite them? Not a bit. And let me tell you those are mighty wise old birds. They must feel awful confident of landing us since the smell of a few chunks of meat don't interest them at all. Did you see any animal signs while you were getting the wood?"
"Eat!" said Payne sharply.
"Which means you didn't. I thought so. Not even an alligator. No wonder those buzzards were glad to see us."
In spite of, or rather because of, the seriousness of their situation they consumed an extraordinary amount of venison; then, stuffed to repletion, stretched themselves out upon the warm earth as if they had not a worry in the world. After the drowsiness of the heavy meal had passed they sat up and looked round leisurely.
So far as they could see the narrow strip which comprised the bank of the mud gulley they had crossed was the only solid land in sight, and because of the trees and palmetto scrub they could not tell how far this ran in either direction. Behind them was the river of mud through which they had wallowed. Before them lay the apparently limitless expanse of the same formation, dotted sparsely with clumps of grass and flowers and at rare intervals with tiny mangrove islands. No signs of animal life were apparent. Even the birds were absent. There were only the buzzards overhead—waiting, waiting, waiting.
"See any water while you were hunting wood?" yawned Higgins. "I need about a gallon to top off that meat."
"Yes; come on; there's a little water hole down here."
Payne led the way down the bank to a slight hollow where water had seeped up through the mud.
"Go easy on it," he advised as Higgins kneeled by the pool. "It doesn't look extra good to me."
"It's wet anyhow," said Higgins and scooped a double handful to his lips.
He spat instantly.
"What's the matter?"
Higgins again sampled the blackish water.
"Taste it," he said.
Payne obeyed. He looked at Higgins. Then they both stood up, shaking the water from their fingers.
Higgins took out his pipe and slowly began to fill it. Payne looked round.
"Hig, that means we've got to hustle and find a way out in a hurry. In this heat we can't go long without water. I suspect it's all salt round here. I remember I've read of salt water between the Everglades and the sea. You take the bank downstream and see what you find. I'll go upstream. We'll meet here in an hour."
They parted at once. But Payne was back at the camp fire in an hour and Higgins was there ahead of him.
"What did you, Hig?"
"I found a mangrove swamp that a bobcat couldn't get through. Did you have any luck?"
Payne shook his head.
"This high ground ends less than a mile up there. And then there's nothing but mud—not a thing but mud. Was there water round the mangroves?"
"Yes. Salt. Salter than salt herring."
"Do you want to turn back, Hig?" asked Payne suddenly.
"You're going to try to get through?"
"Then I'm with you to the finish; and that's settled."
Payne pointed out over the mud which lay between them and their destination.
"That's the way we're going. First of all we'll see if the thing can be waded."
He stepped carefully off into the oozy slime and allowed himself to sink. He sank to his shoulders without finding any bottom.
"Nothing doing there," he said when Higgins had pulled him back to safety. "Come on."
He led the way up the bank to where the high land gave way to the treacherous mud. Higgins essayed attempts in various directions, but each time found the mud of unwadable depths and was dragged back to solid ground by his employer's long arms.
"We'll try the mangrove swamp," said Payne.
Higgins' description of the swamps as one "that a bobcat couldn't get through" was not an exaggeration. Countless mangrove trees, each with its horde of branches curving weirdly downward and rooted beneath the black water which covered the earth, formed a nightmarish obstacle through which it would have been folly for any one to attempt to force a way. Between the interwoven tops of the trees the sun found rare openings through which its rays struck bolts of light, revealing by contrast the infernolike gloom of the swamp's interior. In these rare blobs of light upon the brackish water moving objects were discernible, the fin of a fish, swimming over a shallow, the snout of a crocodile—proof that the water was salt—and the inevitable squirming of snakes, small and large.
"Nothing doing here either."
"No," agreed Payne. "I'll have to go up high and have a look around."
Retracing the way to the large dead tree upon which the buzzards still roosted patiently, he removed his shoes and stockings and looked up at the gray, tapering trunk.
"Up you go!" cried Higgins, bending his broad shoulders. Roger leaped upon them, leaped again, caught a hold on the tree and began the precarious climb upward. It was now near the end of the day and the time he reached the first spikelike branch which gave him an opportunity to rest, the sun was preparing its pyrotechnics of Florida eventide.
Roger threw a leg over the branch and unslung his glasses. He was above the tops of the other trees on the bank, and mud, water and mangrove swamp lay well below. A patch of white far to the eastward in the swamp had caught his attention even before he raised the glasses to his eyes. Through the powerful lenses the phenomenon seemed at first to be composed of snow-white flowers growing upon the mangrove tops, but presently he saw that the patch was moving. Out of the sun-shot sky a cloud of tiny specks, white as the driven snow, were fluttering downward and settling upon the dark tops of the trees. Fascinated he watched the spectacle until the white patch had doubled in area and only a scatter of specks continued to add their mite to the countless number which had preceded them.
"Egrets!" he cried aloud. "Millions of them. What a sight!"
He was looking at one of the rarest sights beheld by men, a great egret rookery with its countless beautiful birds settling upon their nests for the night. He was about to turn his glasses elsewhere when an interruption seemed to take place in the snow-white patch. A cloud of gray smoke belched explosively up through its center. Another and another followed swiftly until six of the blasts had occurred. The dense mass of birds rose in fluttering flight and flew wildly up into the sky where the setting sun turned their spotless white to pink and gold. Only there remained upon the dark tops of the mangroves six small, ragged patches of white, the limp bodies of scores of the beautiful birds in each, where the strange smoke blasts had wrought their deadly work.
"What's the good word; found a way out?" called Higgins from below.
"Not yet." Payne dismissed the tragedy he had witnessed and moved his glasses in a slow arc to the north and east.
"Look for running water," shouted Higgins. "That's our bet."
"I know." Roger was scanning the mud field to the northward.
"There must be high ground some place beyond," continued the engineer. "And if there is, there'll be a creek running into that mud. That would mean fresh water."
"I see something that looks like high ground, all right," said Payne, studying a smudge of blue against the northern horizon. "But I don't see anything like running water."
"It's got to be there," maintained Higgins. "In this soft mud it may be underground and you'd never see it."
Payne held his precarious perch, scrutinizing the treacherous ground which they must cross if they were to continue their journey, until the sun, like a blazing red wafer, had slipped down behind the mangrove swamp in the west and darkness had come to the earth below. The darkness spread and crept upward to where he sat, and as he prepared to descend Payne glanced up toward the last rosy gleams on the topmost branches of the tall, dead tree. The buzzards, which had flown away at his appearance, had returned and the sun was gilding their black bodies and their foul red heads, as patiently, confidently, they sat waiting.
"Higgins," said Payne, when he reached the ground, "there seems to be a chain of islands running across that mud. I picked out a string of them. The first one is out there about a hundred yards away, and I believe that's about the average distance between them. If we can dope out some scheme for getting across a hundred yards of that mush at a time I believe we can make it. That mud doesn't run on forever; I'm sure I saw solid ground with timber on it to the north."
"How far away?"
"It's impossible even to guess at the distance in that light. I'll go up in the morning and have another look."
"Do the islands look solid?"
"There's brush on them; that's all I could see."
"My God, I'm thirsty," said Higgins irrelevantly.
"I have been so for the last two hours," responded Payne.
"And you saw no water out there?"
"Then we'd better not eat any more of that venison. Meat makes a man thirsty. A hundred yards, you guess, between the islands. Well, I can dope out a rig to beat that game. There's branches and saplings enough here, and creepers, and vines for ropes."
"Snowshoes!" cried Roger, grasping the idea.
"The same principle. Only we won't wear 'em. We'll each make us a pair of mats about four feet square. Big enough to support us. I've crossed rotten ice on 'em lots of times. Stand on one and toss the other ahead of you, step ahead, reach back, pick up the one you left, and toss that ahead. That's easy. But I'm worrying about your not seeing fresh water, Payne. This will be slow, hard work. In the heat to-morrow we'll thirst like souls in purgatory. And we don't know how far that mud reaches or what we'll be up against when we get across."
"Nevertheless, I'm going to try to cross it in the morning."
"Of course. So am I. Now let's build a bright camp fire so I can see to do a bit of fancy Indian basket work."
The sunburst of dawn woke them from a night of restless sleep. Roger sat up sleepily blinking against the garish rays of the rising sun, and conscious of an indefinite sense of discomfort. Sleepily he stumbled to his feet, seeking a drink of water, and then, fully awakened, he understood. His tongue was hot and dry and his swollen throat was crying for a drink of the brackish water which he must not touch.
"Hell!" said Higgins hoarsely as he awoke and felt his throat. "It's getting us quick. This heat just boils the moisture out of you. Do your eyes hurt yet?"
"Mine do. I ate more of that meat than you did."
They found a sweet-bay bush near by and chewed the fragrant leaves for the moisture that was in them.
"I'll climb that tree and have another look round," said Roger.
"All right. While you're there I'll try out the mats I made last night."
They looked together up toward the top of the dead cypress, and Higgins swore. The buzzards were still waiting.
Roger climbed to the branch which offered a perch high up on the tree trunk and once more searched the landscape for a sign of fresh water or a solid path through the mud. The scene below him now resembled nothing so much as a painter's palette streaked and splashed with all the bright primary colors and all their possible hues, shades and variations.
The black mud field was livid with a coating of most somber purple shot with angry streaks of carmine and orange. On the foliage of the tiny islands which dotted the expanse the sun was rosy. To the westward the matted mass of the mangrove swamp seemed to be sheathed with a liquid coat of gold. The mists of morning were rising above the swamp and upon it the dawn played its full palette of colors with delicate rainbow effect. Above the mists the sky was flushed and hectic; and in the east the garishness of the sunburst was like the clang of a brazen gong.
Payne moved his glasses inch by inch upward, scanning minutely the treacherous ground over which they were soon to venture. Had there been running water within sight the searching sun must have revealed it. He saw none, nor did he catch any signs that indicated a watercourse.
The mud and the tiny islands stretched northward to the blue streak on the horizon, which might be timber highland or only mist.
"It works!" called Higgins from below.
By the time Payne had descended from his perch the engineer was out on the mud, demonstrating the efficiency of the mats of thin saplings and creepers which he had woven the evening before. While standing upon one mat, which supported his weight and prevented him sinking into the mud, he tossed a second one ahead, stepped upon it, drew the first mat after him, and repeated the process. It was slow work, for the mud clung to the mats, necessitating a heavy tug to free them, but it was sure—so long as a man's strength remained. Payne followed tediously in Higgins' trail and presently by virtue of greater length of leg and arm, had caught up with him. They reached the first island at the same time and found it no island at all, but a clump of mangrove trees inextricably woven together above a salt-water hole in the mud.
They went on their tedious way without a pause, without a word. The next island was the same, and the next and next. Still they crept steadily on, buoyed and spurred by the hope that the island just ahead would prove different. It was in the middle of the forenoon before they permitted this hope to die. Each island, they now knew, was only a hole of salt water with mangrove trees growing in it. And the islands ran on and on into the distance.
The sun now was rising to the height of its power and its burning rays beat mercilessly down upon the parched pair. Seeking a moment's relief from its heat they thrust themselves into a clump of mangroves and rested. Neither spoke. They had but one thought: "Water!" and each feared to utter it because of the effect upon his companion. As they leaned against the rootlike branches of the mangroves dark shadows moved above them. They looked up. The buzzards were leisurely following their progress.
Through the rest of the day they plunged ahead, the rest halts becoming more and more frequent, and with no break in the monotony of mud and islands. As evening approached they stopped and prepared for the night. Higgins now was all but a wreck. His weight was beginning to tell upon him and his thirst had become torture. With his knife Payne cut armfuls of branches from the nearest island and piled them high upon the mats for a sleeping place.
Higgins climbed to his improvised couch ere daylight had gone from the sky and at once fell asleep. As he slept he babbled. He ordered bell boys to bring him ice water, commanded Mexican water carriers to pass him a canteen; and muttered fretfully that they brought him empty vessels. Payne did not sleep. The evening passed; and the soft Florida moon rode low in the blue mist of the warm night. The moon disappeared; and through it all he lay awake, vibrant with a fear which he dared not own, and which made him yearn for the return of daylight. Higgins rose reluctantly next morning.
"I can't do it," he muttered at first. "I've got to have water."
Payne slapped him full in the face.
"Wake up! Talk like a man!"
The blood of anger flushed Higgins' face; he blinked and, wide awake, understood.
"Oh! All right. Come on."
"Give me your gun," said Payne sharply.
"What? Oh, hell! I'm not that bad."
"Not yet; but we'll play safe. Hand it over."
With the revolver in his possession Payne started the day's march at Higgins' side. Soon his caution was justified. At an island Higgins stopped and stared drunkenly at the salt water gleaming among the mangrove roots.
"Steady, Hig," warned Payne.
"It's salt, you know."
"Oh, yes. 'At's so."
They crept on.
"Don't care if it is salt; I'm going to have some water," said Higgins suddenly. "Look at those damn buzzards back there. They know it's salt. Gimme Old Betsy, Payne, and I'll knock one of 'em down, and then we'll——"
"What?" Higgins shook his head. "What have I been saying?"
"Nothing. Come on."
"I guess it's got me, Payne," said the engineer as they rested at noon. "The fever is in my head too. I'm seeing ice and snow and things like that."
"Come on; keep moving."
Payne could barely talk, but he drove himself and his companion relentlessly. He no longer troubled to look ahead in hope of beholding a change in the land. The weary futile task of placing one mat before the other occupied him entirely. And suddenly he found himself pushing head foremost into a hedgelike thicket of brush and stopped weakly.
"One of those damn islands," mumbled Higgins. "Got to go round it."
"To the right; come one," whispered Payne. He did not trouble to look up.
"Awful big island."
Payne halted. He looked up. He rubbed his eyes.
"Hig," he whispered, "look at it."
Drunkenly Higgins put out his hands toward the sharp-pointed leaves.
"I'm gone, Payne. I see palmetto scrub."
Higgins sat down on a mat and covered his face with his hands.
"I thought I could stick with you, Payne, but I'm no good," he panted. "Head's gone all to pieces. I hear a creek clucking away, and all——"
"Do you hear it too?"
"What! You gone, too, Payne?"
"In there?" cried Payne, pointing into the scrub. "Do you hear water running? My God! Hig, there's solid land, there's——" He hurled himself into the midst of the swordlike points of the scrub. Higgins, made suddenly sane by his companion's apparent madness, stumbled after, pleading, cajoling. Neither realized what happened during the next seconds. Their first realization of the truth came as they grappled at the brink of a rivulet, Payne striving to drink, Higgins pleading with him to remember it was salt. The struggle sobered them. Higgins let go.
"Do you see it, too, Payne? Do you see a creek?"
Payne's reply was to scoop up a handful of water and carry it to his lips.
"Yes, I see a creek," he replied. Higgins followed his example. He splashed his head in the clear, cool water, running clean and fresh through a limestone channel from its source in the Everglades. Payne did likewise. Then each drank a sparing sip of the precious stuff and sat down to sip carefully and at intervals until the torture of thirst had left them.
"The buzzards?" cried Payne, looking in vain for the grisly watchers.
"They're awful wise birds, those fellows. They've turned back."
They remained by the creek until they were rested, forded it and went on.
The ground now was hard and dry. They found themselves in a sparse pine forest where walking was easy. By nightfall they were out on an open prairie, and at midnight they came to the trading post at Legrue.
The trader blinked as he responded to their knocks. In response to Payne's request for information as to the nearest telegraph office he stared stupidly.
"Where in the name of alligators you been wadin', boys?"
The trader winked.
"All right, boys, I ain't askin' no questions. If you say Devil's Playground, all right." He winked again. "I ain't no snooper. Come in."
"How far to the nearest telegraph office?" repeated Payne.
"Why, that's twenty miles, up to Citrus Grove, where the railroad ends. You can make it easy to-morrow."
"Just like this all the way."
"Higgins, you stay here and rest."
And Higgins growled in response: "Come on!"
In the middle of the afternoon of the next day the operator at Citrus Grove spent five minutes in waking Payne. He had been paid five dollars to perform the feat when a reply should arrive to the long telegraph Roger had sent to his lawyer, when at dawn he and Higgins had stumbled into the station. The reply was quite satisfactory:
"Deal closed with Southern Cypress Company. Thirty dollars an acre. Company reliable, progressive. Glad to have live development man take hold. Their title clear. Will see to transfer at once. Wait at Citrus Grove for surveyor who leaves at once. Garman unknown to them. Will look him up."
Payne turned over on his side and went to sleep, the yellow bit of paper clenched tightly in his fist.
A week later Payne stood alone on the little Flower Prairie searching the flooded lands to the eastward and wondering why Higgins did not come. The week had been a successful one. A surveyor and a representative of the Cypress Company had arrived promptly, had smiled skeptically at first when told of the trip through the Devil's Playground, and when convinced had looked upon Payne and Higgins with the admiration of experts for masters. Higgins had remained at Citrus Grove to organize ox-team transport for the material and labor which had been ordered, and Payne had started southward at once. A sure, plodding ox team had carried him in a wide circuit through the flooded lands east of Devil's Playground to Deer Hammock. Signs on the hammock told that it had been visited several times during their absence. Payne found tracks of a size which he judged must be Garman's.
The thousand acres which Payne had purchased from the Cypress Company was found to run northward far enough to include the fairyland of Flower Prairie. The eastern line was where the elderberry jungle and Everglade water met and on the west the line was well out on the sand prairie.
"That's where you may have some trouble, Mr. Payne," said the surveyor. "Florida is a free-range state, and the cattle men have run cattle here so long they feel like kings."
"Is Garman in with them too?"
"Nobody knows much about Garman," was the reply, the same reply that Roger had received often during the week. "But they'll run cattle in on you from there if you don't fence. And if you do fence—well, there have been some ugly fence wars down here."
"I'll fence at once," said Payne. "It's the only businesslike thing to do."
The surveyor had completed his task and gone. Roger was alone. He had pitched camp by one of the clear, cool springs in the heart of the Flower Prairie. A camp fire was smoldering before the tent; the smoke had attracted attention. Payne heard the pounding of hoofs coming toward him through the tall grass, and soon Ramos swung into sight and checked his horse sharply.
"Well?" said Payne. And then the girl of the Egret came riding up beside Ramos.
Payne said, "Well!" again, but the word had another meaning.
"Well!" said she.
Then they both laughed, and she rode up close and dropped off her horse. She was attired in a soft white waist and white riding breeches, but there was about her none of the tomboy so easily suggested by such togs. In spite of the masculinity of her attire the long, supple lines of her body were exquisitely feminine. And she was as relieved at the sight of him as he was glad to behold her.
"I knew you hadn't gone away," said she, after a short silence.
"Who said I had gone away?"
"They all said so."
A blush suffused the clear skin of her cheeks; and as she looked away a sensation of dread crept round Roger's heart.
"Never mind," he said. "Never mind who said it; I'm still here; and I'm going to remain."
"You found your land?"
"It was not as represented, was it?" she asked slowly.
"Oh, that!" he said carelessly. "That's all a matter of salesmanship. An honest, enthusiastic salesman will boost his goods to the skies because that's the way they look to him. A farmer with a bunch of hill and rocks as his property will swear he's got the finest farm in the country because he's enthusiastic about it. This is wild land here—a wild, wild land proposition. It may look bad now as a business deal, but another year and there'll be a difference."
"Then you don't feel you've been cheated?" she said, relief and hopefulness in her tone.
"No! No matter what happens, I don't feel I've been cheated."
"Is that true?"
He looked at her steadfastly and replied: "It is."
"Where is your land?"
"Right here." He waved his hand at the Flower Prairie, at the elderberry jungle.
"Here?" she cried, leaning forward eagerly. "Do you mean it? Really?"
"Right here," he repeated, kicking the ground vigorously.
"Oh, I'm glad!" she murmured. "I'm so glad!"
"I was afraid—maybe my suspicions aren't true after all." She was silent for a moment. "But I can't leave—I can't leave now!"
"Wait!" he cried, leaping toward her, but with one spring the horse was out of reach and galloping away. Payne watched till she was out of sight, but she did not look back.
Higgins and the first ox wagon of his train arrived soon afterward, and in the morning he led the six negro laborers he had brought in an attack with heavy machetes upon the elderberry jungle. The big knives, wielded by the powerful blacks, cut through the-soft wood at a single stroke. The brush was then piled and burned, and the land was ready for the tractor and breaking plow which were coming in pieces from Citrus Grove via ox team.
Payne watched the work for a while, then turned his attention to the fencing job out on the prairie. There was a mile of north-and-south fence to be built, and he set at once to work digging post holes well on the inside of his line.
He had worked two hours when he saw a horseman loping easily toward him from the west. The horseman was apparently a cow-puncher. He was tall, dark and hard-featured. He pulled up abruptly on the fence line and sat looking down, insolently refusing to acknowledge Payne's greeting. At last he said: "What you think you doing?"
"Well," replied Roger, "I'm sort of under the impression that I'm building a line fence."
"You can't fence here."
Roger paused in the act of driving his digger into the ground and looked carefully at his visitor, who, sitting his big buckskin with easy assurance, looked steadily back. For several seconds they appraised one another. Roger grew warm with the anger natural to a man who has been faced on his own land; the stranger was insolent with the bearing of a man who feels himself master in his own country and is face to face with a stranger. Still keeping his eyes on the man Roger drove the digger into the soil, twisted it round and pulled up a core of dirt. He continued doing this until the hole was dug, then pacing deliberately forward he came on a straight line to the stranger's horse. He touched the animal sharply with the digger.
"Up a step, boy."
"Who! Whoa —— you!" The rider checked his mount's startled leap by jerking back on the reins with a viciousness that threw the animal's open mouth straight up in the air.
"What you mean —— you?"
"Easy, easy," cautioned Roger. "Don't go to cursing. That's mighty poor business."
"Business! What do you mean by prodding my nag that way?"
"He was standing right where the next hole is going," replied Roger, driving the digger into the ground. "Sorry, but you were in my way. Now I'm a busy man, Mister Whoever-you-are, and I haven't any time to waste arguing or quarreling with you. I don't know who you are or why you've intruded on me like this, but I do know that you're on my land and that you've been extremely insulting; and if you've no other business with me than to tell me what I can't do, I bid you good-day."
The rider apparently paid not the slightest attention to Roger's words. He sat crouched in the saddle in the attitude of a man controlling himself until the propitious moment for a sudden leap.
"In your way?" he said.
"Yes—as you see."
"And you think you come here to move folks when they're in your way?"
"Usually a man has sense enough to move when he's in the way of another man's land."
"You come down here to teach us sense too?"
Roger made no reply, but continued with his digging.
"I said you can't fence here." The man's voice was thick with anger, and Roger, sensing what was coming, though he continued with his work, his back turned to the rider, leaned forward upon the balls of his feet, alert and ready for any emergency.
"You can't fence here!" snarled the rider. "That's what I come over to see about. I heard talk about your planning to run a fence, but I didn't think you'd be foolish enough to try it, so I came over to see. And I'm warning you to stop. This is cattle country and free range. You quit right where you are with your fence and you'll save yourself money and us the trouble of cutting it down."
"It's against the law to cut fences," suggested Payne.
"Law! We're the law here; you're an outsider; and I'm laying down the law to you now. You cut out that fence business and don't try to change things round here and we may go easy on you. If you don't folks will wonder what's become of you. Understand English? Now I've given you my message. And now—you're in my way and it's time for you to move!"
Like a flash the big buckskin leaped forward at the cruel dig of the spurs, and like a flash Roger turned toward the thudding hoofs, swinging the post-hole digger in a swift arc. The shovels caught the horse a terrible blow full on the nose and with a scream it reared high in the air, its forehoofs waving almost above Roger's head.
"Down on him, Duke, down on him!" bellowed the rider, striving to swing the brute forward, but as Roger leaped to drag him from the saddle he swerved his mount and galloped out of reach. Curses streamed from his lips as he checked the steed and swung him round, curses for the horse and for the man on foot. His quirt rose and fell, lashing the horse into a frenzy as he galloped in a circle round Roger.
"You're in my way, you hear?" he cried. "It's your turn to move."
Each turn brought his course nearer his intended victim; and each moment wrought horse and rider up to a greater fury.
"Move, you sucker, move!"
Roger stood his ground, turning to follow the whirling horse, waiting for the moment when the rider would swing the beast straight at him.
"Jump, sucker, jump! or I'll ride you into the ground."
Roger jumped as the horse came thundering at him, easily carrying himself out of danger from the animal's hoofs as well as from the heavy quirt which the rider swung at him.
"Pretty nimble, eh? You sucker, you're going under the hoofs if it takes all day!"
Roger looked round. They were alone on the bare prairie, out of sight and hearing of any possible assistance. Higgins would grow curious at lunch time if Roger failed to appear and possibly come out to search for him, but previous to that there was no hope that any one would know the grim game that was being played out there in the desolate waste.
Three hundred yards away lay an island of palmetto shrubs with a few pines sprinkled among them. If he could reach that without being ridden down he could equalize somewhat the advantage which a mounted man holds over a man afoot in the open country, but he calculated the danger of turning his back to the maddened horse and rider and gave it up. A sense of outrage, deeper than his anger, began to grow in him as he considered the spectacle of being forced to hop about like a harlequin, at the mercy of a stranger, and on his own land. The instinct of the landowner with his two feet planted upon his own soil welled up in him, and he whisked up the long-handed digger and took a stand to defend himself.
His attitude was that of a man defying the other to ride him down, and the rider, accepting the challenge with a yell, drove at him like a Fury. Roger saw the outstretched nostrils, the bared teeth and pounding hoofs hurtling at him and realized the folly of his impulse. As the steed came upon him he leaped suddenly to one side and struck furiously at the figure in the saddle. He missed his aim, but the horse, with his nose still throbbing from the blow from the steel, swerved widely, and Roger's quick eyes saw that which gave him hope.
"Come on, you cur!" he shouted. "Try it again."
A volley of sneers, defiance, threats, rolled from his lips as he backed slowly over to where he had been at work. All the facility of his invention and all his vocabulary were called upon to drive the rider frantic with rage and to forbid his powers of observation the opportunity to function. The rider saw no danger, failed to notice the little mound of dirt near which Roger was standing, considered nothing but the act of driving full speed at the man who taunted him. Twice he rode at his agile enemy, twice Roger struck at the horse to make him swerve; and at the third charge the animal's foreleg went into the posthole round which Roger had maneuvered, and the rider shot like a sprawling puppet from the saddle onto the ground. He was up in an instant, bewildered but unharmed, and as his eyes ranged from the struggling horse to Roger, the latter said grimly: "Now we'll talk business."
A curse hissed from the other's stiff, open lips, and insane with rage, head down, he threw himself forward. Roger met the rush with a straight left, which cut through an eyebrow like a knife, and went home with a crack on a high cheek bone; but no blow could stop the rush of rage and in another moment the man was on him, grappling for a hold. The fight for the nonce became a scuffle. The stranger fought as Roger had never seen a white man fight before; his hard brown fingers were fixed rigidly like iron claws with which he struck and clutched spasmodically for a grip on the flesh of face or neck.
"I'll claw the face off you, you sucker! I'll leave you blind for the vultures to pick."
"Fight like a white man!" cried Roger, throwing him off. "Close your fists and hit, or, by the eternal, I'll beat you to a pulp."
He caught the wrists of the frenziedly clawing hands as they chopped at him again and in an instant was forced to let go, as his assailant kicked with vicious cunning at his groin. Roger drew a great breath, filling his lungs to their utmost capacity, then, venting his loathing rage in a rumbling bellow, he dove in regardless. Straight against the ironlike claws he drove, reckless in the grasp of the anger that had exploded within him at the unfair trick. Up and back he beat the clutching hands, and drove his right fist to the lower ribs with a force that made the victim gasp. Again he struck, bringing his fist from behind him in an irresistible arc to its mark. Again and again he struck the cattleman's hardened body and then, sensing his opponent's wilting, he drove in, both arms working like pistons, literally beating his man flat to the ground.
Roger stepped back. The tough-bodied fellow on the ground, though overwhelmed by the relentless shower of blows, was not unconscious and not whipped. He lay panting and helpless for the moment, his eyes held fearfully on Roger's boots.
"You hound!" gasped the young man as he understood. "Do you think I'd kick you when you're down. Get up, get up! You've got only half of what's coming to you."
"Can't get up," said the prostrate man sullenly, after a pause. "Hip's broke, or something."
"You lie! Get up, you liar!"
"All right." The cattleman slumped helplessly together. "Go ahead; stomp on me. I can't get up."
Roger stood looking down at him irresolutely. In the fury of combat he had been ready, even eager, to wreak any possible damage to his opponent by fighting. Now with his blood growing cooler and no antagonist before him it was a different matter, and the Anglo-Saxon instinct to succor a fallen and helpless foe began to assert itself.
"You're a lying hound," he said furiously, to hide his intentions. "Your hip is as sound as mine. Get up."
"All right; stomp on me; go ahead; I can't move."
"Where do you pretend you're hurt?"
"It's here." The man's right hand was fumbling in the side pocket of his overalls. "Broke or paralyzed or something! Oh! oh! Mister, you won the fight. Oh! Going to leave me here for the buzzards, I s'pose?"
"What do you take me for?" Roger bent over his victim. "Turn over so I can see where your hand is."
"Oh, oh! Straighten my leg out, for Gawd's sake." Roger bent to do so, his eyes for the moment leaving the other's face. "Easy; easy, now. There, you sucker; take that!"
As one might leap back from a reptile's fangs, so Roger leaped at the burning sensation and the thud of a blow on his back. The cattleman, too, came to his feet with a spring that betrayed his shaming [Transcriber's note: shamming?]; and at sight of the glistening thing in the man's hand Roger understood. It was a long-bladed clasp knife with a button catch. While the man was groaning and pretending to feel for his broken bones he had opened the knife in his pocket; and when Roger had bent over the man had stabbed him in the back.
The man was grinning in bestial fashion, his teeth bared, his eyes alight with devilish expectancy, waiting for his victim to fall. He was gloating; he feasted his eyes upon Roger's fresh young face, his bright eyes, and waited for the flesh to begin to fade and grow greenish white; for the eyes to fill with a slow astonishment and to grow dim as a light that is turned out, and for the great young body to come crashing stupidly to the ground. He made no move to strike again; he was too intensely interested in anticipation of the sight he thought to gloat over. The delectable spectacle did not seem to come. The victim's fresh color did not fade; his bright eyes did not grow dim.
"Missed," said Roger quietly, withdrawing his wet hand from its exploration. "Hit a rib. Now, cur, do your damnedest!"
He walked forward toward the outpointed knife, walked straight-limbed and head up, his shoulders squared, his jaw set in fashion that indicated how completely caution had been flung aside.
But the man was watching the blue eyes and he was of the breed that cannot fight fair. He quailed before the Northern relentlessness, bred of kinship with the relentless Northern ice, that showed in those blue eyes. He could not fathom what was in the look that chilled him; his breed never could; but one thing he understood: He had met his master.
He gave ground a foot, the knife still held out before him. He gave a yard. He wilted, became panic-stricken, turned and fled to his horse and galloped away. Well out of reach he turned and waved his blade in a dramatic threat. Then he disappeared behind an islet of palmetto scrub.
Payne stalked back to where Higgins and his negroes were slashing into the elderberry brush.
"Call 'em off," he said abruptly. "We're going to build a fence. They've served their first notice; I'm going to shoot one back at them."
"Shoot is right," said Higgins, picking up one of the 30-30 carbines which had been a part of his first load. Payne had armed himself similarly. "When you get ready you'll probably give me a hint of what's happened."
As they led the crew over to the western line and started them at work on the post holes Payne related the story of the fight.
"I went on the fence job alone because I wanted to reason with them if they came to stop me," he said. "I thought they could be made to understand that a new day has dawned down here. Apparently I was mistaken. There'll be no more attempt at friendliness on my part."
"Free-range cattlemen!" said Higgins. "The same all over the world! A fence makes them see red. Barb wire is to 'em like a new steel trap to a wolf. Wonder if it was one of Garman's men?"
"I don't know whether Garman's activities include cattle. What difference does it make? Our job is to put this fence up. The next move is up to them."
"Here comes their first move!" said Higgins presently.
Payne turned swiftly. The engineer's keen eyes had picked out three small specks bobbing up and down out on the prairie and even at the distance he knew them for easily riding horsemen.
"It didn't take him long to tell his friends," said Payne. "Hig, you go down to the other side of the boys. My guess is that they'll try to terrorize our labor. If they drive this bunch off the news will spread. Negroes won't come to work down here where they hear any white men are out against them. If they're like the first pup they'll try to ride the boys down."
"Yep; that's a favorite method."
"Kill the horse under the first man who tries it, if he's down your way. If he's up here I'll do it. Then stop. Stop absolutely. No words. I talked too much to that other hound. Just wait for their next move."
"Well—I've heard they carry guns down here, Payne, and use them well, too, sometimes," said Higgins questioningly.
"Well," replied Payne dryly, "I don't think I'll try to tell you what to do in that case."
The three riders were still far away and their approach was a slow, leisurely canter. They made no apparent effort to hurry their mounts, nor did they maintain a straight course. At times they were lost from view hidden behind the islets of palmetto scrub, or in one of the rare clumps of pine or cypress with which the prairie was dotted.
"Looks like they're getting a little chilled below the ankles," called Higgins. "Do they think we're such damn fools they can fool us by coming slow?"
The riders disappeared behind one of the small thick clumps of old cypress trees draped with great curtains of Spanish moss, which mark the presence of a water hole on the Florida prairie. When they emerged their course was altered toward the northward.
"Looks like they're turning back."
The three horses suddenly broke into a gallop. Payne reached for his field glasses, but before he could bring them to bear the cavalcade had disappeared behind a cluster of cabbage palms on a small hammock probably five hundred yards away.
The negroes stopped work suddenly, eyeing their masters for instructions, but ready to run the next instant if the instructions were not forthcoming.
"Lie down! Right where you are." Payne's orders seemed to drop the blacks in their tracks. Relieved at having a white man think for them they stretched their great bodies in the grass, their eyes not on the menace of the hammock, but upon Payne. Payne and Higgins remained standing, their carbines lying across their left arms.
"If they can hit anything at that distance they've got to be pretty good shots, Hig."
"I'll say they have. Got to have pretty good tools, too; and most of the rifles I've seen round here are the old forty-fours."
"If they are Garman's men they'll have up-to-date rifles all right."
"Sure. The best money can buy." Higgins shrewdly estimated the range to the palms. "Say, Payne, if they've got Springfields or something as good, and can use them, we're making a fool play standing here."
"Lie down, there."
"Down hell! What I mean is we ought to get closer to 'em so we'd have an even break with these little 30-30s."
"Then we'd be off our land. They've got to come to us."
"I see. What in the devil are they waiting for? Put your glasses on those palms and see what you can see."
"Can't see a thing," reported Payne after a careful scrutiny of the hammock. "The palms shut out the sun and hide them."
"They knew what they were doing when they went there, didn't they?" said Higgins. "Nice, dark hiding place where they can lay safe and have their targets out in the sun. You can do what you please, Payne, but the first shot out of there I start for the hammock. There's a big bunch of palmetto scrub south of it. I'll get in there and give 'em hell-for-breakfast."
Payne was holding his glasses upon the palms. He had gotten the perfect focus now and saw that a broad wagon trail led through the middle of the hammock. Out of this opening presently came the three riders, riding abreast at a walk. Payne started. A hot flush of embarrassment flooded his face.
"Higgins; for heaven's sake, put down your gun. Put it down quick, I say! Hide it. Get up and go to work, men. Hustle. It's all right. Get a-going!"
He hid his rifle hurriedly, picked up a digger and set to work, grimly ignoring Higgins' frantic demands for an explanation. He was working furiously and the crew was following his example, when the three riders, who were Garman, Mrs. Livingstone and the girl, came cantering up to the fence line.
It was a different Garman than had faced Roger across the camp fire on Deer Hammock; and it was a different girl than had ridden away from Flower Prairie. Only Mrs. Livingstone seemed to be as Roger recalled her, cold, affected; arrogant, and extremely conscious of the importance of her position as chaperon.
Garman for the nonce was the courtier, the artistic idler, the dilettante in the art of luxurious living; and Payne, conscious of his dirt-smudged overalls, envied him the elegance with which he played the role. That Garman was interested in the crudities of business seemed an improbability; that he was connected with things dark and hidden, a thought to ridicule. His purpose in life just then was that of the luxurious idler, to escort two ladies of his class for a leisurely ride, to serve them gracefully as their chevalier. And yet, beneath the silken coat of manners the tiger force of him was evident. From where he stood Payne could feel the hypnotic power of the man's mere presence.
As he looked at the girl he saw that she too had felt it—saw that it was Garman's nearness that wrought the change in her. She seemed under an influence which subdued yet excited her as might some subtle drug. Her normally calm, frank eyes were heavy and mysterious with a drowsy languor. Her tall, vibrant figure likewise seemed to droop drowsily, the budding lines of her body tremulous with young life and womanhood. Her hands hung languidly upon the saddle horn. Only her rich young lips were firm and straight, as if her mind and will power were fighting resolutely against the desire to yield to the subtle influence which was steeping her through and through.
"Are you fencing off Flower Prairie—that garden of dreams come true?" she said with a careless laugh.
"Yes," said Payne, "but I'm going to put a gate in there."
"Kind of him, isn't it?" said Mrs. Livingstone, turning to Garman with the empty, affected laugh of her kind. "Shall we be permitted to continue our rides to Flower Prairie? Are persons permitted to place such obstructions in such places?"
Garman smoothed his tawny mustache, playfully bowing to her, as if loathe to interrupt with a reply.
Payne was breathing hard.
"Yes; they are," he said hoarsely, and checked himself.
"Ye-es," purred Garman. "If they own the land."
Payne turned on him.
"Where's Willy Tiger?" he snapped out. "What did you do to him?"
"Come, Annette," said Mrs. Livingstone. "It is too warm to stand still. We will ride back slowly."
"Aunty——" began the girl, and then, as Garman moved his horse toward her, she bowed her head and pulled her mount away from Garman's. "Very well, aunty," she said nervously, and there was relief in her bearing as she drew away from Garman.
This time, as she cantered away she looked back. And in her eyes was a look of appeal, and a promise that she would come again.
"How about Willy High Pockets—or Tiger?" demanded Higgins the instant the ladies were out of hearing.
"Payne," said Garman, instantly dropping his air of affectation and becoming the business man, "you've made a mistake in picking a chief assistant with red hair. Damn it, man, don't you know it's a sign of hot-headedness. Keep 'em down—foremen, crew handlers, perhaps; but as executives, never!"
The veins were swelling in Higgins' thick neck and his face rivaled his fiery poll in redness. He came toward Garman with quick, eager steps.
"Hey, Hig!" laughed Payne. "Are you going to prove that he's right?"
"I came to see you about that Indian, Payne," said Garman, dismissing Higgins emphatically. "Not that I'm interested personally. Others are. Didn't he come back to you?"
"You haven't seen him since?"
"All right; neither have I. He's gone back to his people probably; Indians come and go. Now that will be all about Willy Tiger," he said in a tone of finality.
"Payne, if you're going to stay here we'd better talk like business men. I'm a business man."
"I try to be."
"Sure. No sense wasting any energy fighting. You're going to develop your tract here?"
"Going to try to; yes."
Garman studied him with new intentness for a moment.
"And yet you look like you had business sense, too."
Payne made no reply.
"You know what a poor business proposition you've got, of course," continued Garman. "Even assuming that things are as you think they are?"
Garman smiled slightly, a slow, amused smile.
"Payne, if I told you that I'm afraid you'd pull up stakes and get out pronto."
"That would leave you broken-hearted, wouldn't it, Garman?"
"No-o-o," said Garman; "but it would—well it would deprive me of your company. I'm a sociable animal, Payne. I crave company; I like to have all sorts of people about me. Take Ramos, for instance; did you ever see a more supercilious, sneaky, disagreeable specimen of the half-breed Mexican? Neither have I. You, I suppose, wouldn't have him 'round you."
"Not if I was able to kick him away."
"Exactly; and thereby you would be depriving yourself of most excellent entertainment, besides the services of a most useful servant."