"I haven't got any dirty work to be done, Garman."
Garman smoked deliberately for several seconds.
"Payne, once and for all, let this be understood between us: when I have any dirty work to be done I do it myself, with these two hands. Understand? Now, Ramos fancies himself in the supposed position of bravo. Very amusing, I assure you——"
"I don't care about Ramos and your whims, Garman," Payne interrupted.
"Of course not. Why should you? But I'd be bored to death down here if I didn't have people to play with——"
"Rot! You aren't the playing kind."
"My dear fellow," said Garman with a deep chuckle, "if I didn't have lives to play with—other people's lives—I'd die of boredom. You're young," he continued with a sudden touch of bitterness. "You're still able to draw upon the old illusions to maintain your interest in life. Ambition, work, achievement, success—Love! You're inexperienced enough to pursue the old will-o'-the-wisps that Nature has planted in man's instincts to keep him living till her purpose is served. Pah! Payne, I've tried them all, won them all, and that—" he blew out a great cloud of smoke—"that is more real and satisfying than all of them put together."
"Have your liver examined," advised Payne; "that's probably what's the matter with you."
Garman's Gargantuan burst of laughter rocked him in the saddle.
"Good boy! We'll have a lot of fun before we're through with one another. But what a materialist you are for a young fellow, Payne! What will you be at fifty if now you reduce psychological manifestations to a common physical cause? Why, man, you ought to be walking with your head in the clouds, dreaming of the one woman, the Perfect Mate, and Love, which are to make your life complete. All young fools of your age do it; why not you?"
"And so you play with other people's lives, do you?" said Payne, paying no attention to the other's raillery. "And is that what you're thinking of doing with mine?"
Garman tilted back his head and smiled through a smoke cloud. "Yes," he said softly; "unless you run away."
"No, you aren't the running kind. That's what makes you interesting. That's what will make you good fun. What could be more interesting than seeing a young man like yourself want something so badly that he'd give his life for it and then suddenly place the desired object far, far beyond his reach. To watch his expression when he discovers that he's lost. To see the change from hope to despair take place in his eyes, to watch the illusions go, and the bitter truth about life take possession of him. What will he do, say and look when he discovers that the oyster of life is a hollow, empty, fraudulent shell?"
"You're raving, Garman!"
"Do you accept the challenge?"
"To the limit."
"Good boy! I knew you wouldn't disappoint me. The girl would have been worth while, but adding you, Payne, you glimpsing a dream of a fool's paradise, will be glorious!"
"You talk like a damn fool," said Payne bluntly.
Garman nodded, and with the nod his strange mood passed and he was the business man again.
"All right. That's all of that for the present. Now, what are you up against? What are your biggest problems?"
"Thanks, but I am not placing myself entirely in your hands, Garman."
"That's right; play safe. But I'm talking business now. You're tackling a hard job here. What can I do to help?"
"There's only one thing I want you to do, Garman; that's to keep your hands off this job, and to keep your men from interfering with me and my men and the job, or anything connected with it."
"That's settled. Anything else?"
"That's all. It will save trouble for both of us if you'll do that."
Garman dismissed the matter as settled with a nod, and gathered up his reins.
"Doing anything next Sunday afternoon?"
Payne thought for a moment.
"Yes; next Sunday I'll be going down the river to Gumbo Key. The ditching outfit that I've hired is due to arrive at the Key on Saturday night. I promised to meet it and see it up the river. We'll start up river Monday morning. I'll be on that dredger all the way up, Garman.
"Don't waste your time. There'll be no interference. In fact, if she needs help you can borrow the old Cormorant for a tugboat."
"No, thanks. They do their own towing."
"All right. But there's no sense of your going down there and wasting your whole Sunday on Gumbo Key. I suppose you'd do that; prejudice against breaking the Sabbath and all that? I thought so; it goes with the illusions. But there's no need for it this time—and I've been specially ordered to invite you down to my little place for Sunday afternoon. If you knew who issued the order you'd come, I know. It will be sort of an affair to welcome you to our midst. Better come, Payne; besides somebody you want to meet properly, there'll be a certain man there you ought to meet. Sunday afternoon."
"Will Mrs. Livingstone be there?"
"Pooh! Pay no attention to that. She'll be tamed by Sunday. Come about two. In the evening if you wish I'll have the Cormorant run you down the river to Gumbo Key." He paused and with a flicker of a smile added the words which he knew would evoke but one reply: "Of course if you fear it's a trap——"
"At two Sunday afternoon?" said Roger.
"Right." Garman wheeled his horse and loped away without another word.
Payne was not greatly concerned one way or another with Garman's apparent change of heart toward his enterprise. He had no intention of asking or receiving favors. All he asked was that Garman keep his hands off.
The rest of the week saw the line fence completed and a good slice of the elderberry jungle cleared away and burned. Besides this, Higgins and Payne cruised the drowned land and ran the lines where the ditches were to be dug when the ditcher should arrive. Two main ditches, running in a V from the head of the Chokohatchee, Higgins' figures showed, would drain the surface water off the thousand acres of lake which had been sold to Payne as prairie land.
In the soft mud the big ditching machine would eat its way forward at the rate of half a mile a day—a week should suffice to put the main ditches through. As soon as the surface water was off, Higgins planned for a system of short lateral ditches running at intervals into the two branches of the V. Thus every portion of the thousand-acre tract would be subject to thorough drainage. Following the drainage of the surface water the underground seepage would run off as a matter of course.
Garman apparently was as good as his word. Each morning Payne awoke expecting to find that his fence had been cut during the night, but so far the wire remained unmolested.
"That proves that Garman is boss of the whole country, cattlemen and all," said Payne one morning. "The cowman that I whipped intended to come back."
"If something had not interfered he'd have been back that night with a gang. He was so mad it must have taken something awfully strong to stop him, and that means it was Garman."
"Yes," agreed Higgins; "but I wouldn't exactly look on him as a bosom friend, if I were you."
"Pooh! I'm not fooled a bit by him. He's simply playing with me—or trying to do it. Well, we'll try to be right here, still doing business, when the game is over."
One morning a negro from the brushing crew came running up to Payne's tent in great excitement.
"Boss, boss! Trouble in the jungle oveh dah. White man driving colored boys away with rifle."
Payne followed the excited man and found that the machetes of the black gang, hacking a space in the heart of the jungle, had exposed an old clearing containing a tumble down shack. A tall, gnarled man with long hair and beard stood before the door of the shack, a Winchester held in his hands in businesslike fashion. Behind him hovered a young woman, who must have been refined and beautiful once, but who now was slatternly, and two children.
Payne called out, "Good morning, neighbor, what seems to be the difficulty?" and started toward the shack.
The man with the rifle did not reply. He merely raised the weapon till the sights were full against Roger's breast. The young man stopped.
"Don't shoot, Cal; please don't shoot!" whimpered the woman. "They're too many for you."
"Shut up!" growled the man. "Git in the house."
"Put down your gun," shouted Payne. "Tell me your trouble. My boys been bothering you?"
"You're a-botherin' me," retorted the cracker. "You cal'late to run me off my place here. Well, I ain't a-going."
Payne looked about the clearing and saw that here, hidden from all the world in the dense elder growth, the squatter had attempted and succeeded in making a primitive sort of home. Fish nets and traps, otter and coon skins, hung on the walls of the shack. In the clearing was a cultivated patch of the Seminole "contie" root, which could be ground into flour, and a scattering of domestic vegetables. On a few stunted trees were a few dried-up oranges; and on the branches of one of the larger trees was hung a swing fashioned from tough-fibered creepers. On one side of the rude shack a patch of moon vine was being trained along the wall.
"My name is Payne, neighbor," said Roger presently.
The squatter eyed him suspiciously for a long while. At last he dropped the rifle in the hollow of his arm, keeping a ready thumb on the hammer.
"Mine's Blease," he said at last.
Roger regarded the man thoughtfully for a long time. To his surprise he perceived that Blease was not at all of the unfavorable type he had expected to find squatting in such a place. The man's hair was long and ragged, his beard likewise, and he was poorly nourished and clad; but Roger had lived enough in the open to learn how deceptive are external appearances in showing the true character of a man. As he looked at Blease, meeting the other's hard eyes, he sensed the true worth of the man hiding beneath the guise of a shiftless squatter. As for the woman, it was obvious that she was Blease's superior.
"Tell me, Blease," said Payne suddenly, "How long have you been living on this land?"
"'Bout two years," replied the squatter after a long pause.
"You don't pretend you have a title to it?"
Again the pause, then: "No, sir, I don't."
"Have you got a mule?" broke out Roger suddenly.
"A mule? No. Why?"
"How do you expect to do any farming without a mule? Come over to my camp next week when I get some in and I'll try to fix you up." Blease stood looking at him, tugging at his ragged beard, shifting from one foot to the other, gazing hopelessly round for an answer to the miracle. Finally he cleared his throat.
"Some catch there."
"How do you mean that, Mr. Payne?"
"Just as I say; if we have an extra mule next week we'll let you have it."
"To farm with. You've got to begin to make some money. You can't stay on this land any longer without a title; that isn't business. I could move you, but I don't want to; wouldn't feel right about it. I want to get you to farming right so you can make some money and buy from me the piece of ground you're squatting on. What have you got cleared here—five acres? You ought to have about ten. We'll measure off ten here, and go on with our clearing round you. Now, what do you say?"
"You mean it?"
Payne crossed the clearing and stood before the squatter.
"Do you think I'm fooling you?" he asked.
The squatter shamefacedly put his rifle away.
"My name, suh, is Calhoun Blease," he said in a new manner. "I don't understand this yit, but I do not believe you are foolin' with me, suh."
"If I am, you've still got your rifle," said Payne. "Now, tell me something: Didn't Mr. Garman send you word that my job was not to be molested or hindered?"
At the mention of Garman's name, Blease's thin figure seemed to collapse.
"Garman? Garman don't know we're here, does he? Are—are you a friend of Mr. Garman's, suh?"
"I think," replied Payne, "he is the worst enemy I've got. Do you know him?"
After a long pause Blease said slowly: "I was his caretaker over there once."
"What do you think of him?"
"He is the worst enemy any man can have," muttered the squatter. "He—don't know we're here? Good. Nobody does. He's too smart and hard to be just a man. Garman is—he—he was the devil who made us outcasts like we be—he did it. Hiding our faces from the world, account of him!"
"Do you want to tell me what he did to you?"
Blease glanced at the little shack.
"No, no. I reckon I don't want to tell you. But—Mrs. Blease once was secretary—never mind. Garman and his swimming pool—— No, I ain't telling; I ain't telling!"
The rest of the day was torture for Payne. Blease had said too much and too little for him to have any peace. He had caught one glimpse of the woman in the shack, and alternately he wished he had not seen her and that the sight of her had been more illuminating.
Blease's wife was no "cracker," no native of those parts, no type which belonged in a squatter's shack in the heart of a jungle. Her presence there seemed to cry out the news of some foul miscarriage of destiny, of a wrong to her life too hideous to imagine. Upon her face—still young—was the tale of a broken soul protesting against the wrong life had dealt it. He drew his hands across his brow to dispel the memory of that look and to try to see Mrs. Blease as she had been before it came. A high type of business secretary. Blease had started to tell and had stopped. Secretary to Garman possibly. Blease had been Garman's caretaker. Payne recalled the swimming pool with its drug-like atmosphere. What had happened there? He felt he would never know, did not wish to know. What might be happening there now?
A river of ice seemed to roll down his spine and little rivulets seemed to trickle out to the last nerve tips of his fingers, chilling him through and through; and he worked through the day dry-throated and breathing hard, conscious that a crisis in his life lay before him. Why should it affect him so? What had he to do with Garman's affairs or the affairs of those with him? The vision of the girl called Annette, as he first saw her in the dawn on Gumbo Key, stood before his eyes, and he knew how false his attempts at disinterest. Life had caught him up in a net with other lives. He thought of Garman, and groaned behind set teeth.
Night came with no surcease to the apprehension in his heart; and as if to mock his mood the scene, after a lurid sunset, was beautiful and kindly beyond compare. A mist of color like powdered silver filled the air. Soft, near-by stars blinked lazily down upon the scene, illumining it without the effect of brilliance. A half moon hung idly in the mists above the cypress trees, and long, languorous shadows streaked the silvered ground with black. In the dark jungle of elder bushes there opened long vistas of silver light, as unreal as the black tops of the far-away trees. In the unreality of the night the earth itself seemed unreal, all things appeared as shadows swimming in a dream sea of soft radiance.
Payne left his tent and walked out into the marvelous night, unsoothed by its beauty, not caring whither he went. Annette's eyes had promised she would return, and he went toward the sand prairie where he knew she rode sometimes in the cool of the evening. He came abruptly upon the wire of his line fence, and for a moment stood gripping the wires and looking off into the distance, over the sand prairie. He found himself presently by the gate he had cut in the wire as an entrance to Flower Prairie, and stood entranced by the dreamy beauty of the spot. In the center of the park the bowllike sand of a long dried-up water hole seemed overlaid by a thin sheet of silver, and the tiny palms that circled its shores were dark pillars, topped by a crown of silver leaves. The effect of the moon upon the water of the Prairie's tiny spring lake was like magic. In its silver gleam the trees, shrubs and even the flowers upon its bank were reflected vividly, and a fish swimming near the surface lifted the water in a gentle, rolling swell.
Payne looked, and in place of the lake he seemed to behold a swimming pool and to sense an atmosphere that was like a drug. He opened the gate and stepped out on the sand prairie. As in moments of crisis, when unseen, unknown forces take a life in hand, he was for the moment like a man in a dream, unconscious of his movements, incapable of intention. He leaned against the gatepost to think. The soft thud-thud of an unseen horse, walking slowly somewhere out upon the prairie, brought him up with a jerk. He peered into the moonlight in a vain effort to see. Placing his ear to the ground he caught the sound again and after a moment made out that the hoof beats were coming slowly toward his fence.
Payne stepped within his own line and closed the gate.
Presently he flung it open again and stood in the shade of a palmetto, waiting. He rubbed his eyes to make sure he was not a victim of the night's magic. It was Annette on her pony; she had kept the promise of her eyes. But her appearance gave Roger a shock. Her hair was disheveled. Her hands hung limply upon the saddle pommel and her head was bowed. She rode through the gate, past him to the brink of the tiny lakelet and halted. Then she looked round as if seeking some one. She looked to where the tent lights gleamed mistily through the canvas of Payne's camp. Then, after a long while, she dismounted and started to lead her mount toward the tents. Payne stepped forward out of the shadows and into her sight.
Neither spoke at first. Surprise had rendered her speechless; and as the silvery moon haze revealed her upturned face Payne was frozen dumb. For the look in her eyes and upon her face was a hint of the look which he had beheld upon the countenance of Mrs. Blease. He recoiled from it at first. Then he bent forward, scanning her mercilessly, and saw with a sense of relief that he was wrong. The face of the girl was the panorama of a struggle. There was fear there, and uncertainty in the eyes; but there was no acknowledgment of defeat. The change in her bearing was appalling to Payne. The gallant bearing of her vibrant young body was gone. She might have been drugged, so submerged was her true self.
"You think it's the moon, don't you?" she said with an uneasy laugh, leaning languidly against the patient pony's neck. "Well, it isn't. It—it's something else—something so different—I don't even understand what it is. I don't even know if there is anything. Yet there must be; it affects me so. I'm afraid—and yet I'm not. I—I rather like it, too. That's why I'm afraid; I like it so well. It seems so—soothing."
"Miss——" began Roger and paused, puzzled at what to call her.
Her response was a languid chuckle.
"My name? How formal! Does it seem natural to be formal here? It doesn't to me. And it doesn't seem pleasant; it jars so. That's why the other thing, whatever it is, seems so inviting and inevitable. So natural. No formality. No straining. Nothing but—that."
"What is—'that'?" asked Payne.
"I don't know," she responded in wide-eyed wonderment. "Really, I don't. It isn't anything tangible. It's over there some place," she nodded languidly across the prairie. "It—frightened me to-night. I ran away—but I didn't escape it."
"It's Garman!" blurted Payne hoarsely.
"Oh, don't!" She cowered against the pony. "Please—please don't! Oh, if you don't wish to be cruel——"
The utterance of her name seemed to bring back a sense of her true self. She straightened herself slowly to her full height, and her poise of assurance seemed to come back to its own.
"It must sound terribly silly to you," she said quietly. "I wonder if the Florida moon affects every one that way."
"You said it wasn't the moon."
"No," she said seriously, "it isn't." She paused, stroking the pony's neck thoughtfully. "Do you know, I actually was so frightened at nothing that I ran away this evening."
"You were going over there?" He pointed toward the vague lights showing through the tents of his camp.
"Why—yes. It isn't the most thickly populated part of the world about here, isn't it? White people aren't so plentiful here. At least I knew there were white men at those tents—that funny red-haired man and yourself. You see it was the only place about here where I knew I could find anybody who—what shall I say? Why, who doesn't belong in this weird atmosphere——It was uncanny over at our place this evening. At sunset the water in the swimming pool didn't seem to be water at all; it seemed molten gold; and the mosaic round it seemed to be made up of whitened bones, and back of that was the fringe of palms hiding the jungle. It suddenly seemed to me that the palms were there for that purpose, and that the jungle needed to be hidden; and the palms seemed to know it, for their fronds hung drooping, like the hands of weary, worn-out women, tired of concealing whatever it is that's Back There—in the jungle—on Palm Island."
"You don't mind my talking, do you? It's a relief. I couldn't talk to any one over there. The whole place seemed to be suffocating. I had to talk. I'll tell you why; I wanted to go into the jungle and see what it is the palms hide back there at night. Isn't it ludicrous—or ghastly—whichever way you look at it?"
"You aren't alone over there? Mrs. Livingstone is still there, isn't she?"
"Yes, Aunty's still there. I'm safely chaperoned." She laughed with a note of hardness in her young voice. "What a chaperon! If she knew I was here talking to you I believe it would drive her mad. She guards me so closely—when it pleases her to do so."
She laughed bitterly again.
"That's why she brought me down here alone to—that house. I am beginning to understand Aunty. I never knew why she guarded me so carefully before. My mother died before I could remember. Aunty brought me up. She's my father's sister. She brought me up well, for her purpose. I've been in schools all my life it seems until last winter. Then she brought me out, in Washington. Since then—Society. You see, we haven't got money. People think we have, but we haven't. So I've been on display, set up by Aunty in one of society's shop windows, like goods in the Boardwalk booths at Atlantic City. Do you mind my rambling?"
"Go on, please."
"You don't know what such a life means. You're a producer; I've been a doll tricked out for inspection by the men who are rich enough to buy expensive dolls. But we've no money. Society asks about that first of all when—an Aunty is trying to put a doll up for sale:
"'What have you to offer? Honesty? Character? Decency? Oh, well-hm-hm. Is that all? Then stand in the corner there among the obscure ones. Some one will see you in time—if you live long enough. And the next: What have you to offer? Intelligence; thought? No sale; you make us all feel uncomfortable. Virtue? Tut, tut, my dear! Cleverness, charm, facile smartness? The crowd gathers round. Beauty? The crowd grows thicker. Money—wealth—gold by millions? Ah! Come to our arms, you golden one, rotten to the core though you may be—gentleman with a gorilla's tastes; lady with Madonna face, Venus body, viper soul! Come to the throne; we salaam before you—your gold has made you sacred.'
"Oh! The stench of it still is in my nostrils; I still feel thick cold fingers on my bare arms. I once was one of them—serenely satisfied that I was one of the elect of earth, though I had never produced a thing in this world, but only consumed. No right at all to anything and sure I had the right to everything, to consume food, to wear out clothes, to wear out servants. In return I gave—nothing. Not a thing. But I've waked up. Earth—good, black earth—you are greater than Mrs. Butterfly Croesus and all her brood; because you are real.
"I see it now. My silly pretty face, my woman's body, my graces, seductions, all have been so much bait for Aunty's fishing. Bait! That's what I've been; bait to catch goldfish! And she brought me down here on the greatest fishing trip she's ever attempted."
"But you have a father."
"Yes. You will meet him Sunday. Well, I suppose I've bored you terribly. Thank you for your patience. It was a relief to talk to some one."
But she did not go. The mystery and companionship of the sub-tropical night was upon them with its sensuous caresses. All of Payne's hard-won man-strength seemed to leave him: he felt as weak as a child; and he began to stammer brokenly.
"Anything I can do—if I can help—what you spoke of—Back There in the jungle——?"
"No, no. Nobody can help me with that. It's got to be just myself. I know that now."
She was the more self-controlled. Payne could not speak. All that he wished to say—his strength, his life, at her call in her hour of need—he expressed in a gesture.
She touched his outstretched hand. Instinctively their fingers locked together, instinctively she swayed toward him.
He had released her hand. They looked at one another a long time. She smiled a little.
"I must go back."
She touched his sleeve lightly, mounted and looked down at him.
"Can't I help in any way?" he asked.
"No one can help me," she whispered. "No one but my own weak self."
And the look upon her countenance which had appalled him as she passed through the gate was coming back as she rode away.
A soft, misty pall of midsummer heat hung over and pervaded the vine-covered forest of wild-apple trees surrounding Garman's house when Payne set out on Sunday afternoon to keep his appointment. As he entered the footpath leading from the prairie toward the house, he was forced to stoop to avoid the curtain of flowering moonvine which hung overhead, and once in the path he felt again the sickening drowsiness of the shut-in air. A mingling of many sweet odors hung about him like a heavy, poisonous drug; and he felt that it was pleasant poison, and walked swiftly on.
In a shaded pergola running out from the house to the jungle he saw Annette, and stopped.
An old man with a white Vandyke beard and pompously out-thrown chest was coming down the path from the house. He strutted as he walked, and stood for a moment framed between two palm trees where the path entered the pergola.
"Little Annette!" he murmured, beaming patronizingly upon the girl. "Happy again. I knew you would be. But I haven't heard you laugh for a long time."
"No," said the girl, looking at him intently, "I haven't laughed since we came here."
"But you are happy now. Yes, yes, quite happy, quite happy. Up early this morning and all round the place like a little lark."
"Because I couldn't sleep. And because—early in the morning—others are not up—and I can be alone."
"No one can—no one can be alone in this world, dear. No one should. The laws of God and man, of Nature, forbid it." His old, self-satisfied eyes took in the long rounded lines of her figure and the virgin freshness of her throat and face with assuring calculation. "Especially, my dear, is it a crime to attempt to remain alone when nature has so abundantly endowed one for the purpose of—not remaining alone. Also, my dear," he continued, the playfulness gone from his tones as he pointed sternly at the diamond upon the third finger of her left hand, "you will kindly not forget that you wear that."
"Do you think there is any opportunity for me to forget it?" she asked. "Do you! Think!"
He attempted to face down her steadfast eyes. He failed, and, turning his glance uneasily, he saw Roger Payne.
"What's this? What's this?"
His eyes ran wildly from Roger to the girl and back again; and as they rested upon Payne they grew dead and gray with hatred, the futile hopeless hatred of an old man for one who is young.
"Who is this man, Annette? How does he come to be here? Answer me at once; answer me, I say!"
The girl looked long at him, looked with clear, calm eyes until the old man's pouter-pigeon effect disappeared.
"My dear! Forgive my vehemence. You see I think only of you. I was afraid——"
"Yes. What are you afraid of, father?" asked the girl swiftly. "Tell me that. I often wonder."
"Yes. I sometimes see it in your eyes when you think no one is looking. Have you done something——?"
"Land sales, for instance? If so, I must know. I'm not little Annette any longer. I must know things now."
The old man stroked his white beard nervously. His eyes shifted uneasily toward Payne.
"Oh! pardon my negligence," exclaimed the girl. "This is Mr. Payne, father. He's purchased a lot of land down here. Mr. Payne, this is my father, Senator Fairclothe."
Payne bowed automatically. He was dumbfounded for a moment, but in a flash his self-control had returned.
"We have had some correspondence—business correspondence—Senator," he said.
Senator Fairclothe was watching him with the shifty eyes of a cornered man who stands on guard, ready to parry a blow.
"Have we? I don't recall the name, young man. Lane, Caine?"
"No. No, I don't remember the name."
"You're sure you don't, father?" interposed Miss Fairclothe.
Payne came to the rescue.
"Of course you wouldn't remember my name, Senator. You have too many large affairs to occupy your mind. It was merely about some land down here. I've meant for some time to write you and thank you for influencing me to buy the land down here."
"What!" cried the girl, and stood dumb, staring at Payne, with a hand pressed to her lips.
"Influence you?" snapped Fairclothe testily. "How could I influence you? You are no child. The buyer must protect himself. It is the first rule of business."
"Nevertheless, you did influence me. It was your letters that caused me to decide to buy. And I want to thank you, because otherwise I would not be where I stand at present."
The Senator tugged at his beard, watching Payne narrowly, suspicious of some trick.
"Any letters I may have written to you—which I do not remember doing—were merely a formal part of one phase of my activities. It is gratifying, of course, to hear you express your satisfaction. On the other hand, as I said, the oldest law in business is 'Let the buyer beware,' and it would not have disturbed me in the least, young man, had you appeared with a poppycock song of dissatisfaction with your purchase."
"But I am satisfied," insisted Payne. "Some of the land I bought for $30 an acre will be worth $200 when the ditcher gets in and we drain it. It's rich, black muck, three feet deep in spots. I see profit of $100 an acre within a year."
"Hm," said Senator Fairclothe. "As much as that?"
"That's the minimum."
"You will make a hundred dollars on our land—the land you've purchased, I should say?"
"As soon as I get it drained, yes, sir."
Senator Fairclothe tugged again at his beard. There was a new look in his eyes as he revolved over and over again the words, "one hundred dollars profit per acre." Payne had purchased a thousand acres from his company. A hundred times a thousand meant a hundred thousand dollars.
"I am glad to hear you say that," he said finally. "I hope you will dig your drainage ditches soon?"
"The ditch contractor will come up the river to-morrow. It won't take long after he gets to work."
"I am glad to hear that, too. If I can do anything to assist you in getting your drainage work done, pray command me."
"Just what I told him, Senator," boomed Garman's voice behind them. "We want to help him get his improvement work done promptly."
Garman stood leaning against the custard-apple tree which had hidden his approach and looked at Payne and Annette as he spoke. So far as his expression was concerned the Senator, whom he addressed, did not exist for him. His lips uttered words for Fairclothe's ears; but his lazy, heavily lidded eyes searched Payne and the girl to the bottom of their souls. Roger returned the look steadily; and by the flickering mockery in Garman's eyes he knew that it was Garman's ring that gleamed on Annette's finger.
"I was just thanking Senator Fairclothe for influencing me in the purchase of land down here," said Roger deliberately. "If it hadn't been for him, Garman, I wouldn't be here now."
"If that is so," returned Garman, "we must thank him, too. For we wouldn't be deprived of your company for a lot—would we, Annette?"
"Mr. Payne was speaking of the land he bought," said Annette. "The land with the water on it."
"Yes, dear." Garman's mocking eyes were on Payne as he spoke. "Water galore. But Payne is a worker. Youth, strength, high hopes, ambition! Payne will have that water off in a hurry. We'll be glad to see that done, won't we, Senator?"
"Yes, indeed. Improvement work——"
"Mrs. Livingston was asking for you and Annette, Senator," said Garman.
Payne nearly started at the change in his tone. It was a tone of command, of dismissal, and to Roger's astonishment Annette and her father obeyed. Garman strolled into the pergola and dropped into a chair, a huge, oppressive figure in white silk. Lazily and from beneath the half-closed heavy lids his eyes watched Annette as she walked toward the house. With an air of playful possession he followed the play of her young body in motion, the quick, strong flip of her foot upon the hard sand of the path, the firmness of her limbs, the sway of her rounded torso, the poise of her neck and head. A smile lifted his mustache, revealing the thick red mouth beneath. Indolently he breathed through half-parted lips.
"Payne," he said thickly, "there goes Love. There goes the dream of all young fools. Aren't you dreaming a little yourself, Payne, eh?—I see you are. You have looked upon the dream in the flesh, and hope has been born in your young, manly bosom. Hope? No; belief. Belief in the realization of ideals. What damn fools all you young cubs are, to be sure!"
"Well," said Roger calmly, "I like that. I like to have a man ask me to be his guest and try to make things pleasant for me by calling me a damn fool."
"If," retorted Garman slowly, "you were the average young cub I'd get to my feet and apologize for speaking sense; but you're fairly well grown. All you need, Payne, is to have the fresh young mask pulled from the face of Life and to see the old hag as she really is. Then you'd be fit for something. Payne, I believe I'm going to do that service for you."
He looked toward the house where Annette was to be seen on the verandah. He smiled as he saw how Roger's eyes followed his.
"Payne, it's those girls with the fair, thin skin that the Southern sun and tropical environment are ruthless with. They've no shield against nature's relentless desire down here, tropical nature's desire for a welter of life. And when they're too young to have developed the hard outer shell of experience, why, their womanhood is just naked to the searching, smirching tropical sun, and they go plumb crazy. Develop dual personalities. Lose their civilization. Want to go into the jungle, and so on. Thin white skin, like thinnest silk, and blue veins full of young red blood showing through. A fine spectacle, Payne; a natural princess among girls writhing in a struggle against the luring muck of the jungle. Ever hear of Palm Island? She's struggling against going there. Well, she'll lose her struggle; has lost it; that's settled. Come on to dinner."
On the verandah he paused sharply, whirling about with the swiftness of a tiger. Ramos, the Mexican, had come galloping out of the jungle, flogging his horse as he came.
"Well?" Garman's attitude, suggested the crouch of a tiger ready to spring.
"Si! Yes; it is so!"
"They've got him?"
"Yes. He is on Palm Island, surrounded; not caught."
"A-a-ah!" Garman rubbed his hands together as a growl of triumph rumbled up from his thick red throat. "Have Prince saddled, Ramos. Then ride back and watch so they don't hurt him. I'll follow—I'm called away—on business, Annette. You entertain Mr. Payne."
With a leap he was off the verandah and running for the stables.
Payne met him as he mounted, and caught the horse by the head.
"Garman, who's the man Ramos spoke of?"
"Let go, you fool! The brute's a striker."
Payne dodged the flash of the animal's forehoofs, but caught a bridle rein.
"Who is he, Garman?"
"A fool—trespassing. Just business."
"Not Higgins or any of my men?"
"No, nobody you know. Look out!"
The horse lunged forward. Payne stepped aside. Garman was gone, like a hunter in sight of his quarry.
The silence that followed was broken by Annette's laughter.
"What very pretty conduct!" she said.
Senator Fairclothe thrust out his chest pompously. Garman being gone he saw himself as the dominant personality present.
"Men of great affairs, my dear Annette, cannot permit attention to the petty details of conduct to disturb their purpose when a crisis presents itself. The truly big man lets his results speak for themselves. Mr. Garman exercises the privileges of the big man that he is. It is a privilege to see such a man meeting and solving a problem."
"Do you know what it is about, father?"
"Not at all. Nor do I concern myself. I know Mr. Garman."
The girl leaned forward and peered in his eyes.
"Do you really, father? Ah! I see you do. You too, then? But how you—a man?"
"Annette," called Mrs. Livingstone, "will you please come in?"
The meal that followed was a ghastly affair. One figure there alone would have served to cast gloom over the table. Senator Fairclothe sat crumpled in his chair, his white Vandyke beard crushed on his breast, looking ridiculously helpless. He had shrunk from his daughter's words. Not until he had drunk much champagne after the meal did he begin to recover. And soon after he strutted out to a shaded chair and fell asleep.
Said Mrs. Livingstone presently:
"Mr. Payne, I understand that Mr. Garman has given orders that the Egret is at your disposal if you wish to go down the river. I believe you had planned such a trip, had you not?"
"Are you going?" asked Annette suddenly.
"Yes. Our ditcher is down there at Gumbo Key. I'll feel safer if I start him up the river myself."
Annette jumped up with a cry of relief.
"Get my sweater coat, Aunty. Get one for yourself. Father! Father, wake up! We're all going for a nice, beautiful, cool ride down the river."
"Annette!" gasped Mrs. Livingstone; but Annette carried all before her like a young spring storm.
Payne had not contemplated a start until near evening, but within half an hour he found himself beside the girl leaning over the port rail of the Egret and watching the water curl away from her gleaming bows as the boat slipped swiftly downstream toward Gumbo Key.
"I was suffocating back there," she explained. "I had to get away. Yes, Aunty; I'll come out of the sun in a minute—Mr. Payne, I want to thank you for the way you lied to my father about being satisfied with your land. Why did you do it?"
He turned to her, intending to laugh the matter away, but as he met her look, his eyes betrayed him.
"Why did you do it?" she whispered.
Payne looked away; and there was no need for him to speak.
"Oh, no!" she whispered. "Oh, no, no, no, no!"
There was a long silence. At last he heard her stifle a sob and looked round. Annette was walking aft toward the cabin with slow, dragging steps.
"My dear Annette!" cried Mrs. Livingstone and Senator Fairclothe together as they saw her face, but she pushed past them and disappeared in the cabin.
"Sir!" began the Senator indignantly. "May I ask you for an explanation?"
"Lafe," interrupted his sister quietly, "will you go and see how Annette is? I fear she stayed too long in the sun."
"I demand a father's right——"
"Yes, yes. Please do as I suggest. I am sure Annette is wanting you."
Alone, Mrs. Livingstone turned and faced Roger. Though she stood as hard and motionless as adamant, the jet pendants in her ears trembled and twinkled. And Payne, as he saw the hard lines about her mouth, lines of fear, struggle, determination, felt sorry for her.
"What did you say to Annette?"
"Not one word," replied Roger.
"What did she say to you?"
"That is a secret."
"Why did she leave you—as she did?"
"That is another secret—and she's the only one who knows it."
For a moment they faced one another silently, then suddenly the woman blazed out:
"How dare you interfere with my plans for her! Besides, let me inform you, it is too late. She is engaged to Mr. Garman."
"She is to marry Garman?" asked Roger slowly.
"Then if it's settled—how can I interfere?"
"You can't. I will not permit it. And if you could, what could you offer her? You've no money, no position, no influence. You're nobody. She is Annette Fairclothe. She is the last hope of the family. I have built our whole future upon her. There will be no interference with my plans."
"She has a father——"
"Pooh! That doddering ass! Do you think it is he who has enabled us to keep our position in Washington? And now he is going into his dotage, and the big men won't dare to use him much longer. I'm not blind, Mr. Payne; I can see as well as Garman. Let me speak seriously to you: Your presence here spells danger to Annette—serious danger."
"Because, rather than risk failure for my plans, I will not stop at anything in the world."
"Why in the world should you threaten me, Mrs. Livingstone?"
Mrs. Livingstone's lips parted in a terrible smile as she walked away.
"You? Why, I was not thinking of you at all."
Above the Egret a crippled white ibis, with a broken leg impeding its flight, was flying clumsily across the river. Close above it, with deadly intent, sailed a brown hawk. The hawk struck, but in spite of its handicap the ibis swerved in time to escape the deadly talons. Then pursued and pursuer disappeared in the jungle across the river.
At Gumbo Key the black, scowlike hull carrying the ditching machinery, moving slowly in tow of a gasoline tug, was seen making headway across the bay toward the mouth of the river. As the Egret curved gracefully round the Key and came alongside the tug to place Payne aboard, Annette came and stood by his side.
"You're not going back with us?" she asked.
"No. It's better that I shouldn't. Don't you think so?"
"Yes, I suppose it is." Her eyes looked out across the bay to the open sea beyond. "Oh! I wish I weren't going back there; I wish I would never see that place again."
"Do you mean that?"
"How can you doubt it!"
The Egret had completed her curve and with throttled engines was creeping smoothly up to the ditching scow's side.
"You don't have to go back," said Payne. "The ditching can wait. I'll have them moor the ditcher here. You can get aboard the tug and I'll have them take you to Key West, to Fort Myers, Tampa—any place you want to go. From there you can go anywhere, as far away as you wish to go."
"Really?" she cried, "Oh, but that poor little tug—the Egret would catch her in a mile."
"If you get on that tug I will see that you go wherever you wish to go."
"Once aboard the lugger and the girl is free!" she quoted. "No, no. You don't understand. It isn't so simple as that. If it was merely a question of getting away, do you think I would be afraid? It's more than that. It's all in myself, all here." She struck her bosom with a white clenched fist. "It is something in myself—it's something I've got to settle all by myself. You must not try to interfere. Win or lose, no one can help me—no one. That is why I must go back—though I am afraid."
The Egret had crept past the length of the ditcher, disdaining to approach its grimy hull with her immaculate sides. She was approaching the squat little tug. Suddenly the girl held out her hand.
"Good-by," she said.
"Good-by?" he stammered, "Surely it isn't good-by?"
The Egret's starboard ladder was gently chaffing the tug's fender.
"It isn't good-by!" he said.
"I am afraid it is." She watched him as he went over the side onto the tug's deck. The Egret, as if freed from a burden, shot sharply forward. Annette leaned far over the rail.
"Good-by," she murmured. "Good-by!"
"Mr. Payne, I take it?"
Roger turned to face the speaker, a tall, hawk-nosed man whose sallow, leathery face was set in the lines of the hard worker.
"Yes, I'm Payne. Are you the captain?"
"I'm boss of the ditching outfit, Mr. Payne. White's my name. Was you planning we should lay up at Gumbo Key to-night?"
Roger looked across the bay at the last glimpse of the Egret's white hull as she sped into the mouth of the river. The setting sun glinted on paint and nickel and brasswork. It was fancy, perhaps, but he seemed to make out the figure of Annette still leaning over the starboard rail.
"Yes—I was," he said slowly. The Egret shifted her course slightly, and like the snuffing of a light disappeared round the first bend in the river.
"Well, I dunno," said White. "So far's I'm concerned the quicker I get my outfit up the river the better I'll like it."
"Do you know the river well?"
"Reckon I do."
"Can you run it by night?"
"Shore can—especially as it's going to be broad moonlight."
"All right," said Roger. "Let's go."
All through the night, without halting save for occasional engine trouble, the little gasoline tug dragged its unwieldly tow up the tree-lined reaches of the Chokohatchee River. The moonlight illumined the waterway as with a million softly shaded lights. The Spanish moss which hung from the live oak and cypress along the bank was transmuted into scintillating draperies of twinkling silver. Upon the flowing water the light lay like an immutable sheen, seemingly a part of the flowing current, an endless stream of molten silver. Fishes, snakes and nocturnal animals broke and rippled the sheen of the water's surface. A huge, sharp fin ripping the silver before the tug's bows told of a tarpon strayed far inland with the tide. An otter's head, round and hard, jutted up, looked round, dove again.
In the magic light and shading, the tubby lines of the little tug were softened and altered; its paint-cracked deck and wheelhouse silvered and mellowed. The twin wire cables stretching back to the tow became two glistening silver ropes. At their ends, cavernous gloomy and grimy despite the moonlight, wallowed the high bulky hull of the ditcher's scow.
To Roger Payne, standing beside White in the little wheelhouse, the mournful chuckle of the Southern nightingale, as it sounded time after time from the cavernous darkness of the jungle shore seemed to strike at him personally with a note of knowing mockery. The weirdness and the elusiveness of the scene seemed the inevitable ending of the strange day. On the rippling water the moonbeams twinkled like silvery fairy sprites at play; and in the junglelike woods on the shores yawned great caverns of darkness, their evil suggestiveness only heightened by the bars of light shooting down through the matted leaves.
Back on the scow a sleepless negro, lying face up to the moonlight, began to croon weirdly.
"What in the devil do you call that?" asked Roger.
White listened, his head to one side.
"Haiti nigger—French patois," was his reply. "There; catch the 'mom'selle'? Haiti nigger singing."
He reached down and picked up a bolt.
"Haiti negro?" said Roger, puzzled. "How did he get in that gang?"
"Oh, they drift over once in a while." White was measuring the distance to the scow.
The bolt hummed through the air, struck the ditcher's shovels with a clang and splashed into the water.
"Missed!" growled White. "Shut up, you Sam. This ain't no voodoo outfit."
"Voodoo!" Roger laughed mirthlessly. "That would be the finishing touch."
"How come?" said White, puzzled.
"Do you happen to know Mr. Garman, White?"
"I was 'specting you to ask that, Mr. Payne," was the drawled reply. "I got this to say: I know Garman, but that's all. I dig ditches for my living. I dig 'em fast and I dig 'em good; and—and that's all I'm up here for, one way or 'nother."
"Right! and the faster you dig 'em, the better it will suit me."
"Me, too," was the earnest reply.
Roger looked at the man sharply.
"Why? Don't you like the job?"
"The job's all right. I've said I'd dig 'em, and I'll dig 'em fast. But the quicker I get done, and the quicker I get my outfit pointed downstream again, and the quicker I'm out of this river, the better suited I'll be. That's all I'm saying."
Roger laughed grimly.
"You talk like you'd had dealings with Garman before, White?"
"That's all I'm saying," repeated the man. Then suddenly: "What's that?"
A clear shaft of light pierced the moonmist ahead, lighting a broad space in the river from the next bend down to the tug. While they watched in fascination the light came nearer, flashing in their eyes, and behind it resounded the unmistakable hum of the Egret's engines. Compared to the crawling pace of the tug the yacht seemed to leap out of the night straight at them.
"Yo hoo!" yelled White. "Look out! Want to run us down?"
A full-throated laugh rang out from the Egret's bridge as her course was changed slightly and her engines throttled down. On the bridge beside the searchlight Roger saw Garman's huge figure looming.
"Ho, Payne!" came a hail. "Didn't see anything of the —— we're after, did you?"
"Not to recognize by that description," replied Roger.
"A —— by any other name would look the same," laughed Garman. He leaned over the rail, smoking furiously, his eyes alight with the savage joy of the chase. "Yes, and he'd stand just as much chance of getting out alive. I'll get him. He got away from Palm Island into the swamp. Punctured your friend Ramos in doing so." His laugh rolled over the water like the growl of a bear. "In fact, punctured him so successfully that we had to cover Mr. Ramos with three feet of dirt to cheat the buzzards.—White, is that you?"
"Well, White, you do your best for Mr. Payne. He's in a hurry to get his ditches dug. Do your best for him for he's a particular friend of mine—and of some one else." He laughed again, shouted an order, and the Egret leaped past them and on down the river.
"Ghost boat, ghost boat!" The Haiti black, back on the scow, waking up from his sleep, had stared full in the eye of the Egret's searchlight, and now was staggering round, terror-stricken and dazed.
"Knock him down somebody," called White calmly.
"Ghost boat, ghost boat!"
"Down the—uh! Oh, ma Dieu!"
The Egret and her light had disappeared round a bend and the negro was pointing at the empty moonlit river. Hoots of laughter greeted him.
"Guess you got 'em, Sam. No other boat round here."
"Ma Dieu! Ah seen him. Yoh gen'men sho' they wasn't no boat?"
"You're raving. No boat at all."
"Shut up!" cried White. "Shut up!"
A moment's silence. Then, from a black corner on the ditcher came the negro's voice, moaning in cutting minor notes a primitive jungle croon of fear and terror. White laughed grimly, making no effort to quiet him. Roger stared up the river and made out a flicker of purple light shooting up from the eastern horizon into the misty heavens.
"Thank God!" he said in relief. "Daylight is coming."
He leaped ashore as the tug ran close to an out-jutting point of high land below Garman's, and cut straight across the prairie toward his camp. The sunburst of dawn was at its gaudiest when he came within sight of the tents and he caught the glint of sun on the bare matchets of the clearing gang as the men prepared for the day's work. Higgins was standing before his tent, smoking and chafing the men.
"Everything all right, Hig?" asked Roger with false calm.
"All right? Sure. Why wouldn't it be?" Higgins took the pipe from his lips and looked closer.
"Hi! What's up? What's happened to you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, you don't have to tell me, of course; but—but what in the name of smoked fish makes you look as if you'd been through the Devil's Playground again?"
Higgins breathed hard after Roger had completed the tale of Garman's man hunt.
"That's a damn lie about Ramos!" he said. "If he's dead Garman's gang killed him—-Garman himself probably—afterwards."
"How do you know?"
"Willy High Pockets has been here."
"Yep. I had him hid down in Blease's shack, but he beat it away."
"Then it was that poor Indian Garman was after!"
"Not quite. There was a white man, too. A guy that Willy met out in the swamp some place when he beat it that day after Garman had handled him. It was this white man that Garman was after. Willy was with him. Garman's bunch had 'em trapped on an island down in the swamp, but Willy happened to know an Injun way out and they slipped the noose. Willy came crawling in here last night. He's got a tear from a forty-four along his hip and the white man sent him to us to get it doctored up and keep him hidden. I slipped down to Blease's and fixed it up with them to hide him, but he slipped away to join that white man as soon as we had him sewed up.
"Where is the white man?"
"Still out in the swamp. He steered Willy till they saw the tents and then he beat it back."
"Who is he?"
"Don't know; Willy wasn't telling."
"What does Garman want to get him for?"
"Willy 'donno' that either. He 'donno' anything at all about this guy in the swamp. But he did tell a straight story about the sneak they made; and there wasn't a shot fired on either side, so Ramos wasn't shot then. I'll bank on Willy's word for that."
White promptly made good his promise concerning the ditches. Within a week his dredger had eaten its way through sawgrass, water and muck from the headwaters of the Chokohatchee to Deer Key, digging a broad, main drainage canal through the middle of Payne's thousand acres of drowned land. Higgins' calculations proved themselves in practice, and the big ditch soon drew off the bulk of the surface water on the track. The work of cutting the small lateral canals progressed rapidly with the smaller ditching machine. White worked his men in two shifts, and kept his shovels at work day and night. He made no effort to conceal the reason for his haste.
"I took the job, and I'll see it through," said he, "but outside of collecting my money the best part of this job to me will be when I wind it up and get out."
"Still," retorted Higgins, to whom the statement was made, "you don't look exactly like a man troubled with cold feet."
But White would not permit himself to be drawn out.
"I'll be glad when I look back from my tug and see Gumbo Key behind me; that's all I'm saying."
As the work progressed and it became apparent that the muck lands could be sufficiently drained to be available for agricultural purposes, Roger grew puzzled. There had been so far no opposition or interference from Garman. Apparently he had been sincere in his declaration that he wished to see Roger successful in the development of the tract. Garman himself was not seen during the period that the ditcher was at work, but the conduct of his employees made it obvious that they had received orders to assist, not interfere with the draining project. One day the proud Egret stopped to tow a disabled supply boat up the river for White's crew. Another time two of Garman's men came out and took the place of a pair of ditch workers who were ill.
Why was Garman doing it? What was behind his apparent friendliness?
Roger gave up the puzzle. In fact, he had discovered that he was not so vitally interested in his land project as he had thought himself to be. He worked and saw that his men worked, and kept the job up to the program he had outlined. And he tossed at night on his camp cot, his mind tortured with other thoughts.
White completed his job, pocketed his check and chugged away down the river.
Two days after his departure Roger and Higgins were measuring the acreage cleared in the elder brush when one of the blacks said suddenly:
"Wha' dem man do ovah thah, Boss?"
Payne glanced out over the ditched sawgrass land whither the negro was pointing and saw three men carefully picking their way along the spoil banks beside the ditches.
Roger studied the group for a long time, then suddenly he dropped the measuring line and strode toward them.
"Right," growled Higgins, doing likewise. "Those fellows aren't just sightseeing by a darn sight."
Payne studied the men as he approached them. They were dressed in tourist apparel, but their hard faces belied their clothes. Each carried a cane, but the thick hands that held them would have appeared more at home gripping a blackjack or a revolver. The largest of the trio, a hard-faced man with thin lips, studiously placed himself across Roger's path.
"Well," he said, with the snarl of the city tough in his tones, "what can we do for you?"
Roger choked down the rage that lept for mastery in his breast and said calmly:
"You can explain your insolence to begin with."
"Don't come that—don't try to come that on us, kid! You ain't dealing with no crackers now. What do you want, huh?"
The hot blood flush passed from Roger; he felt himself growing comfortably cool; and within he laughed silently.
"No," he said softly, "I can see that you aren't crackers. What jail held you last?"
The stranger swore foully, a string of oaths that reeked with the stench of corner saloons. He pushed his hat far back upon his round head, looked Roger up and down contemptuously, and swore some more.
"Know who you're talking to?" he demanded. "Better get wise, you——"
Again he polluted the air with his foulness.
Roger waited until the stream of filth had ceased.
"Are you going to explain what you're doing here?" he asked.
"Am—I? Am I going to explain? Hell! Are you going to explain, you mean."
"Yes," said Roger, and leaped forward.
Even Higgins whooped in surprise at the swiftness of the spring. Before the stranger could move Roger was close to him. His right fist swung from far behind caught the man full on the solar plexus, literally lifted him off the spoil bank and knocked him into the water of the ditch.
The other two strangers, heavy-jowled toughs, had sprung to meet Payne. One Roger staggered with a left swing on the ear; the other grappled his legs. This man Higgins rewarded with a kick which would have shattered a thinner skull to bits. Then two separate fights raged up and down the spoil bank. Instantly Roger and Higgins realized that they had their hands full. Payne ran into a body punch which made him realize that his opponent was nearly his equal. Higgins was knocked down at once, bounding up like a rubber ball and cheering the man who struck him.
"That was a peach, that one!" he roared, and returned the compliment. The man rose, knocked Higgins down again and jumped on him.
"Rough and tumble it is!" cried Higgins, and grappled with bear-like arms.
Roger refused to go into a clinch, meeting his antagonist's rushes with straight lefts, and following with futile swings of his right. The tough was too skilled to be caught with a solid blow. Once Roger landed full on the jaw with what he expected to be a knockout and the blow glanced harmlessly, as the man rolled his head back with the trained pugilist's skill. Roger realized that it would be no short fight, and he thought of the man he had knocked into the canal. The fight had raged down the spoil bank, and he glanced around and saw the leader clawing his way up the bank. The pause nearly proved fatal. Roger's opponent leaped in and caught his head in chancery.
"Hand it to him!" screamed the tough to his partner in the ditch. "Shoot him in the back!"
With a mighty lunge Roger flung himself and his opponent to the ground as a pistol snapped viciously and a steel-jacketed bullet zipped over his head.
"Look out, Hig!" he shouted. "Stay under your man."
"Turn 'im over!" The leader who had crawled upon the spoil bank fired again and missed. "Can't yah turn him up so I can get a crack at 'im?"
Roger felt the tough beneath him exerting all his energy. Slowly, surely he felt himself being turned. Then out from the sawgrass came the roar of a rifle, and a heavy slug whined over the gunman's head.
Bang! Another shot. Then the voice of Blease, the squatter:
"Next shot, I'll hold a foot lower. Throw that gun in the ditch. Throw it, you——" Bang! "That's right—Now get 'em boys, get 'em!"
Bare feet came drumming down the dirt of the spoil bank. A huge Bahama black was in the lead of his fellows. He leaped like something wild, his machete flashing in the sun. The gunman cried out and tumbled to safety in the ditch. The black men came with a rush. The fight was over. Panting, grinning, their teeth and eyeballs gleaming, the negroes stood aside awaiting orders.
"I'll be darned," said Roger, puzzled. "Boys, how did you ever come here?"
"Dat white man"—a grinning negro pointed to where Blease had fired from the jungle—"he say he shoot us if we don' come."
Higgins had searched the two strangers and taken a revolver from each.
"All right, boys," said Roger. "You can get right back to work. The show's over."
From the opposite sides of the canal Roger and the leader of the trio glared at one another.
"Well," said Payne, "you tried to run a bluff and it didn't work. What's the idea?"
The man swore again and replied:
"What's the idear, huh? That's what I want to know. You'll get yours for this—coming on people's land and starting a roughhouse."
Roger stared stupidly across the canal at the speaker, incomprehension taking the place of anger. "Oh," he said at last, "it's all a mistake. You got on the wrong tract: this is my land."
"Like —— it is!"
"Don't try to come that on us; don't waste your breath. Think we're dummies? This is our land. We bought it last week. And I'm telling you to keep off of it from now on. Oh, I got the right description; a thousand acres west of a line from Deer Key there to the Cypress Swamp. Want to look at the deed? Give you our lawyer's address if you do."
"Who is your lawyer?"
"Big Tom Connors, Washington, D. C. And if it'll make you feel any better—why, he's a law partner of Senator Fairclothe."
"If you think you have really bought this land," said Roger slowly, "you have been cheated."
"Huh! Do we look like easy marks? Listen, boh: you're the fish that got hooked. You bought a bum title. Get that? Didn't know this little piece of dirt was in the courts, eh? Well, it was; and Big Tom got it, and we got it from him. Your title ain't worth the paper it's written on. Now, you're guilty of tresp——Hold on!"
Roger had thrown his self-control to the winds. He leaped into the canal and wallowed across.
"Get off, my land!" he growled. "Get off!"
The gunman was running for dear life down the spoil bank. On the opposite side his companions were in full flight. Payne did not follow. He stood and watched them, outraged to the marrow. "And keep off, too!" he shouted grimly. "Tell your lawyer, tell your sheriff, tell 'em all, keep off!"
Roger was too stunned to grasp the true significance of the situation at once.
"The Senator's company wouldn't have sold me this land if there was a suit on it."
Then, little by little, the facts began to clarify in his mind. Connors, the lawyer, was Senator Fairclothe's law partner; Fairclothe had been anxious to see the tract drained.
"Oh, my God!" he groaned, "Are they that rotten!"
"But you had the title searched before you bought?" said Higgins.
"Of course. Right back to the first Spanish land grant, and there wasn't a flaw in it."
"Then those fellows are stung."
"Pooh! Those cheap toughs. They're nothing but tools. There's probably been a false transfer made to their names, but that's all; they were picked because they were fighters. Well, whoever picked them hasn't got the least suspicion of what he's started."
"Land titles are rotten things," growled Higgins. "Specially when land sharks are juggling them."
"They waited until the ditches were dug," mused Roger. "They didn't know it would make good land. And then they struck! Higgins, I'm going right down to Garman's and have a little talk with Senator Fairclothe."
"Bet you won't find him. Bet he's away selling this tract again to some other sucker."
But Higgins was wrong. Senator Fairclothe had not gone away. As Roger entered Garman's grounds, he saw Garman, the Senator and a man in long black coat and broad-brimmed black hat in conference upon the verandah. At his appearance Garman, lolling in a lawn chair, chuckled lazily; the Senator became as cold and pompous as the statue he hoped some day would commemorate his services to the Republic, and the black-hatted stranger closed his eyes to mere slits.
"Lo, Payne!" drawled Garman. "Come up out of the sun. You look all heated up."
He looked down at Roger, a smile on his lips as he noted the tenseness of the young man's expression.
"Worrying about something, Payne? Ideals been shattered? Ambition, love— Where's Annette, by the way?"
His chuckle rose to rumbling laughter.
Senator Fairclothe caught the black-clad stranger's eye and nodded stiffly. The man rose.
"You are Roger Payne?"
"Sit down!" In one leap Roger was upon the verandah facing the stranger. "Sit down!" he repeated. "My business is with Senator Fairclothe."
"Sit down," said Roger softly, and the stranger sat.
"Senator Fairclothe," continued Payne, "there seems to be a little misunderstanding about the title to the land I bought from you."
"You bought no land from me, young man."
"You are president of the Prairie Highlands Association?"
"I was. I severed that connection some months ago."
"Before you wrote me those letters?"
"No, the day after I wrote you the last letter of our correspondence. I had no connection with the company you mention at the time you made your purchase. I had discovered that the Prairie Highlands Association was not upon a firm basis. Of the land which they sold not a foot was owned by them. Their original title was false and invalid. The company now is defunct."
"I see," said Roger after a pause. "And knowing that your recommendations as a United States Senator would influence people to purchase this land, and knowing the title to be invalid, did you take any steps to warn them?"
"A United States Senator, I assure you, young man, has other and more important duties than nursing the petty interests of persons stupid enough to purchase land without seeing it. In fact, it might be considered a duty not to interfere. For the welfare of the country, it is desirable, in fact, that such money as such helpless persons may possess be transferred to the possession of the shrewd energetic men who constitute the vital portion of our population."
"Bravo, bravo!" rumbled Garman, applauding. "Senator, I congratulate you on your logic. Payne, there's the philosophy of our era in a nutshell. Now let us hear how star-eyed youth, inspired by ideals, controverts the wisdom of the togoed sage? Annette, dear!" he roared. "Come out! Come out and have some sport!"
"Miss Annette is not in the house," responded a maid.
"What? She was a minute ago."
"She is not now."
"All right. Too bad; wish you could see her, Payne. She's changed. She's grown up now. Senator, it just occurred to me: Annette is rapidly becoming her father's daughter."
"Well, young man," said Fairclothe complacently. "Have you anything more to say to me?"
"I'm going to keep that land, Garman," said Roger, ignoring the Senator. "Going to keep it in spite of all your tools, whether they're city gangsters, United States Senators, or"—with a glance at the stranger—"your deputy sheriffs."
"Senator!" cried Garman in mock horror. "He slanders the honor of your sacred office!"
"Better keep a-hold of your tongue, young feller," warned the deputy. "I'm a little interested in this, too."
"Well," said Roger, "I think there is something in this that will interest people bigger than you or I or the state of Florida. I think the United States Government is due to become interested down here."
The suspicion of a smile curved the corners of Garman's mouth. There was a moment of pregnant silence; then Senator Fairclothe said impressively:
"I represent the United States Government, sir."
"Do you really?" laughed Roger bitterly. "Then the poor old United States Government is in a bad way indeed. But I deny your claim, sir; I don't think you represent the United States Government, because the United States Government consists of about a hundred million working people like myself; and all you represent, sir, are the few rich men and the few hundred millions of dollars which constitute the power that put you in the Senate."
"Do I understand, sir, that you mean to impugn the honor of the august body of which I have the honor to be a member?"
"No; I'm a busy man; I haven't any time to waste like that. But there's going to be something said about using the mails to defraud before this is over. That's Federal business."
"Be careful, sir; I am a member of and represent the Federal Government, and I shall take care that nobody casts any aspersions upon its honor or mine."
"What are you going to do about it?"
"What? Sir, do you mean to defy——?"
"Consider the aspersions cast. What are you going to do about it?"
"He calls," chuckled Garman; "show your cards."
"Hm," interrupted Garman, and the Senator obediently hesitated.
"I shall not state here and now what means I shall utilize in meeting, as befits it, this defiance of our sacred Government. Nor shall I continue any communication or intercourse, or any association whatsoever, with the party or parties guilty of such defiance."
"I reckon this young feller has tooted his horn long enough," drawled the deputy sheriff. "Roger Payne, I——"
Roger turned his back deliberately and went down the stairs.
"Here! Come back here!"
Roger was walking across the lawn, bound for the path that led to his camp. He heard the click of a revolver being cocked on the verandah, but he did not look up.
"Oh, put that thing up, you ass!" said Garman disgustedly. "And go back to Flora City and draw your time—Payne, you're a big, bold buck. There's only one bigger in the country; and you and I are going to have a lot of fun before we're many days older."
Payne did not pause to look back or reply. Garman's taunts had driven him close to the point of explosion. The wretched situation in which he found himself in regard to the land he had paid for and drained was a muddle in his mind. Senator Fairclothe's brazen confession was a confusion. The one thing that was clear to his comprehension—as a touch of white-hot steel is clear to its victim—was Garman's assertion that Annette had changed and was becoming her father's daughter. And when he came upon her—rather when she stepped out before him—in the hidden path near the edge of the wild apple trees, Roger saw that Garman had spoken the truth.
She had changed. She had grown older. Her beauty was as great as ever, but it was now the beauty of a sophisticated, disillusioned and hardened woman, rather than that of the buoyant girl he had known. He could not define the change that had taken place in her, so subtle was it; but as he looked at her he instinctively flung out his hand, a gesture of pleading for something gone, and cried out in youth's agony:
And then the miracle happened. At the sight of him, at the heart throb in his tones as he called her name, she seemed to shiver, then to awaken. She seemed to change before his eyes; though it was only he, seeing with the eyes which that moment had given him, who could have been sensible of the change. She seemed to grow and freshen as a parched rose at the touch of life-giving water. Her eyes gleamed with the old, frank look, her cheeks were rosy, and she walked girlishly as she came forward.
"Ah! Goody, goody!" she cried, clapping her hands. "Somebody likes me the other way—the way I want to be!"
"Annette!" he said again, and stretched out his hands and touched hers and held them.
"You—are happy again now, aren't you?" he stammered.
"Don't I look it?"
Her eyes were brimming with soothing tears.
"Yes—for a minute."
He drew her hands against his breast. He held her so, and she looked up, her wet eyes close to his. He put an arm about his shoulders, and she nestled against his strength with a little sigh of content. And then he drew her closer to him, and they kissed once, instinctively, naturally; and she threw her head back and cried, "Ah, God! No, no!"
"Annette! Annette! What is it?"
"No, no! Let me go—let me go, dear. Please—you must, you must!"
She tore herself out of his relaxed arms and pressed her fists against her eyes to shut out the sight of him.
"Go away!" Her voice was flat and heavy. She turned and crossed her arms against the vine-clad trunk of a wild-apple tree and leaned her head upon them. "Don't come near me. You must not. You won't if you—if you play fair."
"Forgive me!" he said miserably. "I forgot—I didn't think——"
"Don't! Don't apologize—to me."
She waited a moment longer, then turned and faced him. The girlhood was gone from her eyes once more, and her mouth was hardened. She did not meet his eyes, she did not look at him, but stared off into the jungle as she spoke.
"I came out here on purpose to meet you." Her tone was cold and precise. "He—Mr. Garman—told me the truth about those three men last night. It is a lie—about your title being a false one. Your title is the good one. The other title is false. They intend to get possession of the land and entangle it in a lawsuit which will ruin you."
"What does it matter?" he cried pleadingly. "What does that matter?"
There was no response from her. She looked steadily off into the jungle.
"That is just what does matter," she said. "You must not let them get possession of your land."
"I don't intend to. But that——"
"I don't want to see them gobble you up like"—she laughed bitterly—"like they're doing to me."
"No! They haven't done that. They can't. I saw it a moment ago."
"Don't! It hurts. No, they haven't gobbled me up yet, but I don't think they'll delay much longer. They're too strong for me, you see: Aunty, and father, and—him. Aunty trained me for it; poor father cries: he's in his power; and he—it's a terribly strong array against one girl—all alone."
"Not quite alone."
"Yes, quite alone. That's the horror of it. I've told you before; you couldn't understand; but it's myself, only my own soul, that can settle this—it's very strange."
"You can't tell me—what it is?"
"I've told you too much now. But you must take care of yourself. No matter what happens you must take care of yourself."
"I don't know if that's so important," said Roger. "I confess I've lost considerable interest in just myself."
"I've—made you—do that?"
"I want to take care of you."
She smiled a smile too old, too cynical for her youthful lips.
"That was a kind thing to say, but——"
"I love you," said Roger bluntly. "I believe you care a little——"
"Don't, don't, don't!" She turned a face toward him full of pleading. "Do you want to torture me? Can't you see——?" Her voice failed her. She struggled a moment and turned round; holding back tears and smiling by sheer force of will, and held out her hand frankly.
"I love you," repeated Roger doggedly.
A low chuckle in the jungle startled them.
"Ah, youth, youth, youth!" Garman's huge face was peering at them from behind a mask of flowering moon vine. "'I love you.' Ho ho! Poor Payne!"
"You cad, Garman; you mucker!" cried Roger.
"Go!" Annette flung herself upon him, seeking to push him away, but he stood like an oak.
"Eavesdropping! Fine work, Garman."
Garman roared with laughter.
"Do you really love me?" whispered Annette, suddenly, her lips closed to Roger's.
"You know that now."
"No, not yet; but I will soon. If you love me, you'll do what I ask. Go away. Please, please at once!"
"I can't leave you here, Annette, helpless among all this devilishness."
"I am not helpless. Not if I know you really love me. Can you understand that—it will mean so much to me—it will be the one way you can help me—the only way. Help me to save myself, dear, by showing me I have your love. Go!"
He looked at her. Then he bowed his head and went.
"They've jumped us!" Higgins' great neck was swollen with impotent rage as he greeted Roger's return to camp.
"It's my fault, too. Take a good, swift kick at me. I fell down on the job while you were away."
"What has happened?"
Higgins led the way to the edge of the elderberry jungle and pointed out over the drained land. A dozen armed men, outlaws and fugitives of the most vicious kind from Big Cypress Swamp, were scattered systematically over the thousand-acre tract. Two men lay behind the spoil banks at each of the main canal, their heads and rifle barrels showing above the black-earth breastworks. The other men were placed in pairs at strategic points. No one could set foot on the drained land without being seen and subject to fire from two sides.
Through his glasses Payne studied the pair which guarded the end of the main ditch near Deer Key. These were no city toughs who would try to bully rather than fight, but lank-haired, sallow-faced killers from the darkest part of Big Cypress Swamp; men who were desperate because of the crimes they had left behind them, and to whom rifle fire was a familiar argument. By the fashion in which they handled their weapons, Roger saw they were hunters; and the grim way in which they kept watch proved that they had come expecting a fight; to shoot and be shot at; to kill and perhaps be killed.
"That's Garman's work; no one else could get that crowd out of the swamp. How did it happen, Hig?"
"It happened because I'm all bone from the neck up. They used an old trick, and I fell into the trap like a tenderfoot. A few of them came hollering and shooting out of Flower Prairie, stampeding the boys. I figured it to be a raid on the camp, and I hollered for Blease and we ran for the tents. They played the bluff strong. Steamboat Bill got it through the head while he was running for cover—you remember him, the big, black fellow with earrings. Then they threw some lead into the tents, and Blease and I had quite a time holding 'em off. Blease got one of 'em; saw them carrying him away too dead to skin. Then we heard three quick shots, repeated three times down on the muck lands, and the shooting up here quit pronto.
"After a while it got through my thick head what had happened. Blease and I took in on the gallop back toward the ditches, but we were too late. They'd jumped it already, a whole army of 'em, and real hard hombres. Shoot?" He held out his perforated sun helmet. "I pushed that up on the stick for an experiment, and the guy that drilled it was two hundred yards away."
"It was my fault," said Payne. "Garman was too smart for me. I played right into his hand by going down there. He knew that's what I'd do, and he had this gang waiting and shot them over here as soon as he saw me coming."
"That isn't all," continued Higgins. "As soon as the boys saw Steamboat Bill run against his bad luck they left the job and ran for the brush like rabbits. Blease says they won't come back; they always make tracks when white men start shooting."
"You mean there's only two of us here now?"
"Three. Old Blease has put on the war paint."
"Three isn't enough."
"Not by a dozen, it isn't. Did you learn what they're trying to do to you?"
"They're trying to beat me out of the land by fixing up a false title. Now they've got possession, and their scheme is to carry me from court to court till I'm busted and tired out."
As he spoke he realized fully what this meant. Garman's wealth and influence and the pomp and honor of Senator Fairclothe's position would be arrayed against him. He had seen and heard enough to appreciate that the vast territory of Southern Florida was in the hands of a set of powerful, fearless plunderers, with Garman the arch plunderer of them all. And it was organized, protected plundering.
A county sheriff was a petty pawn in the great game. A county judge would be only slightly larger, and so on, up through state legislatures, the governor, congressman, state supreme court judges, and even up and into the sacred precincts of the United States Senate in the person of Senator Fairclothe. How vast was the power of Garman's plunder organization might be estimated by the degree of ignorance in which the land-buying public throughout the country was kept concerning the true situation in the district. Full-page advertisements in Sunday newspapers created a golden dream in the public mind concerning the Western Everglades; not one single news item crept into print revealing the truth. Roger realized that for such a power to crush him in a court test would require merely that the machine created for such purpose be set in motion. He realized also that the vicious nature of the desperados whom Garman had placed upon his drained land and the desperate measures which would be necessary to regain possession of his own.
Yet he found, a little to his own amazement, that he could look upon the theft with entire calmness. The fact was that it did not seem to concern him deeply. His emotions were a throb from the memory of Annette in his arms. He recalled little else of the meeting. She had been in his arms. And now his arms ached for her again with a poignance which made all other things insignificant.
"Well?" said Higgins. "Going to let 'em do it?"
"Do what, Hig?"
"Going to let them drag you into court and beat you because they've got possession of your land?"
"It takes thinking over," mused Roger.
"It takes fighting, that's what it takes," retorted Higgins. "We've got to roust those hard guys out of there before they take root and put up buildings. Some one's got to chase out to Citrus Grove and burn the wires up for about twenty tough fighting men to be delivered at Citrus Grove as quick as the trains will bring 'em. Twenty fighting men, and twenty riot pump-guns, and a dark night, and I'll kick that bunch off the place and have the place back in your own hands by daylight."
Roger laughed sharply.
"What's the matter?" demanded Higgins, "got a better idea?"
"Higgins, if you think Garman has left our back door open you don't half appreciate what the man is. When were the ox teams due?"
"Whew!" Higgins whistled. "That's so; this is the day for 'em to show up. They've been due since daylight."
"And they've never missed their weekly schedule so far. Ox teams are slow, Higgins, but they're darn sure."
"You think Garman's cut us off then?"
"Higgins, if you'd studied Garman half as hard as I have you'd know he wouldn't fail to do just that thing."
At dark Blease came noiselessly to Roger's tent to substantiate this deduction.
He had followed craftily after the party which he and Higgins had driven northward from the camp, and had found them encamped on Coon Hammock, across the ox trail, a scant mile from the camp.
Roger lay on his cot that night calmly appraising his situation. To the south of the camp Garman's henchmen were in possession of his land. To the eastward lay the trackless waters of the Everglades through which only the Seminoles cared to find a way; on the west—the only way out was through Garman's grounds which meant there was no way at all. Northward there was the ox trail, now closed, and the ghastly mud of the Devil's Playground.
Garman's trap was quite complete. Roger wondered when Garman would see fit to bring its jaws together.
But Garman had contemplated and prepared a sport more pleasing to him than this. The trap did not spring; day after day passed, and the situation remained the same. The men on the muck lands guarded against trespass by day or night. The moon was losing its radiance of nights, but sufficient light still prevailed to make an attempt to cross the ditched track plain suicide. In the north the men on Coon Hammock followed the same policy. No attack was made, but neither was there opportunity for any one to pass unobserved or unharmed.
One of the negroes, weary of hiding in the swamp, tried it and came staggering back to the camp with a bullet hole in his foot. Roger reasoned that Garman's cat-and-mouse tactics were calculated to break his nerve or to provoke a fight which could have only one result. Failing in this the trap had but to be maintained and the inevitable result would be surrender.
On the first night when a slight cloudiness, promised considerable darkness Roger slipped out of his tent trained and primed for the ordeal of a passage through the Devil's Playground to Citrus Grove. He crossed the open space of Flower Prairie while a cloudlet hid the moon. In the uncertain light a course through the jungle was not to be thought of. He looked up, and, encouraged by the gathering clouds, slipped through his fence onto the sand prairie and ran northward.
If he could reach unobserved the timber at the southern end of the Devil's Playground he felt he would be safe. As he ran he prayed for the clouds to hold together until he reached the dark wood. His prayer was answered. He made out a trail running into the timber and plunged into the darkness. The darkness lasted but a little while, however. Roger heard the whinny of horses on the trail ahead. The clouds suddenly parted and the moonlight seemed to light the forest like day. He was in an open space in the forest, and Garman and Mrs. Livingstone and Annette were sitting their horses facing him a few paces away.
"I figured it almost to the minute!" said Garman. "Almost to the minute I figured when you were due to start through the Devil's Playground, Payne."
He laughed shortly at the young man's amazement. "Didn't know I knew about that, eh, Payne? Well, I didn't until you bought that land from the Cypress Company. Then I knew you'd found a new way out and I had it looked up. No go now, Payne; the Devil's Playground is closed for traffic."
Annette was sitting straight and firm in her saddle. She turned on Garman with no fear or faltering in her attitude.
"Is this what you brought me out here for?" she asked, so sharply that Mrs. Livingstone cried out protestingly: