Garman lowered his head ominously and the taunting smile on his lips turned to a threat as he returned her look. Even by the faint moonlight the sudden leap of anger and the desire to hurt were apparent in his countenance. He controlled himself.
"Yes, dear," he purred dangerously, "it is."
Annette met his gaze fearlessly. "Is there to be any more of the exhibition?"
"Not unless you irritate me, dear. Don't ride away. Gaze upon Payne's young, star-eyed face, my dear. Look upon it well; let it soak into your soul's memory, as it is now. It is your last chance. Next time you see him his face will not be the face of star-eyed youth at all! Preserve the memory, Annette!"
"Have you quite done?" she said.
"I? Certainly, my dear." Garman was nettled at her self-mastery. "Mrs. Livingstone, perhaps Annette has a word or two she wishes to speak to Payne. Shall we ride on and give them a moment alone?"
"I am sure Annette can have nothing to say to this Mr. Payne," replied Mrs. Livingstone quickly.
"Don't you be so sure of that," said Garman curtly. "Youth calls to youth!"
Annette's riding crop fell suddenly upon her mount and she went past Roger on the gallop out onto the prairie.
"Youth calls to youth!" repeated Garman staring after her with angry eyes. "Mrs. Livingstone, don't you remember when you were young; when you had ideals and hopes of realizing them, and you could love, nobly and purely, without thinking of money?—ha, ha, ha! Must you really follow Annette? Really!"
He pulled his horse close to Roger.
"Well, Payne, how do you like my rat pit? Hard to get out of, eh? Don't waste your time trying; I've made sure you're going to stay put."
"I've been thinking," said Roger calmly, "that perhaps the best act of my life would be to pull the gun inside my shirt and shoot you through the head right here."
"Don't talk nonsense; you can't; you're too civilized. Besides—Hi, there!—Look behind you, Payne."
Roger laughed without turning.
"No, you don't get the drop on me with that old trick, Garman."
"Speak, you back there—what's your name—Harney?"
"Yes, sir," said a muffled voice in the shadows behind Roger. "Ed Harney—Joe Harney's brother. I've got him covered."
"Ho hum!" yawned Garman. "I must follow the ladies. Especially, Annette—magnificent, tender, fiery little Annette!—Damn her! Something has happened; she's bold, defiant! She needs taming. Great sport, woman taming—in the swamp. Good night, Payne. Pleasant dreams!"
A cloud bank floated across the moon, plunging the woods into Stygian darkness. Out on the sand of the prairie the thud, thud, thud of Garman's galloping horse grew fainter and died away. A rift in the clouds revealed the moon for an instant. Roger whirled round, seeking to see the man who had called himself Harney. The clouds closed up again, the woods were black; and a Southern whippoorwill chuckled foolishly. Ahead, on the trail which he must follow to reach the Devil's Playground, Roger heard the footsteps of three men, and knew that Garman had taken all precautions to make good his assertion that the Devil's Playground was closed to traffic.
The anger which was in his heart craved an outlet. He moved toward the hidden men, then paused. They were three to one; in the dark a fight would be folly. Nothing would please Garman better than for him to plunge blindly into a hopeless battle. As Roger thought over the situation his anger rose and clarified. He realized now what a poor figure he had cut face to face with Garman, and he understood why. Garman had dominated him, and made him appear the baffled victim of Garman's superiority. Garman had dominated him, had played with Mrs. Livingstone till she rode away, helpless, outraged. But Annette had outfaced him, and Garman knew it!
"Something has happened!"
Roger recalled Garman's words, and a thrill shot along his spine. Garman did not dominate Annette; he did not hold her helpless by his hypnotic presence as formerly. Something had happened. Roger feared to think what, though hope whispered to him; and he turned back to camp not at all crest-fallen because the secret way through the Devil's Playground was closed. He came into camp with an easy, swinging step, such as no defeated man should display, and Higgins, appraising him as he listened to Roger's brief statement of the case, said:
"Hm. Then you know about it, do you?"
"About what, Hig?"
"About Willie High Pockets!"
"What! Willy been here?"
Higgins' thick brows met in a puzzled frown above his eyes.
"Payne, do you mean to tell me that you go out and find we're shut in like rats in a pit and come back here stepping high, without knowing about our friend Willy?"
"I don't know anything but what I've told you, Hig! Garman has got us shut in. Got us hopelessly cooped up. That's all I know."
"Well, you're a gamer bird than I thought, then. But why so frisky?"
"I figure he's got us about licked," replied Roger, ignoring the question. "We've got one chance in a million. We'll have it out with those birds on the muck land to-night after the moon is down. We may roust 'em. We may not."
"By God!" swore Higgins swiftly. "I'm almost sorry Willy High Pockets showed up. Your idea is the one I've had in mind for days. A fine fight we'd have given them, too. And now that darned Injun cones along and spoils it. We can't try it now."
"Why not?" demanded Roger.
"Willy High Pockets came crawling into camp on his belly about ten minutes after you'd left. He came with a message from that white side-kick of his he met in the swamp. You can't guess who that guy is."
"Who is he?"
"What! The fellow they tried to get on the Cormorant?"
"Is he some sort of a detective?"
"I suspect so. Willy ain't much on the tell. He says that man has got Uncle Sam behind him! And this Davis sends us serious word that we're to keep away from Garman's men. Whatever happens we mustn't get into a fight. We've got to stick right in camp and play safe, or we'll spoil two years' work for Uncle Sam. The first dark night—to-morrow night probably—it will be over, whatever it is, and Davis will come here and explain. That's what Willy High Pockets said, and if you'd seen him tell it you'd know it was a darn serious business. By the great smoked fish, Payne, there's a big game being played round here. I feel it in my bones. And I'm sore because I haven't got a finger in the pie."
"What can it be?"
"You got me. But whoever this Davis man is he's got Willy so he isn't afraid of Garman. That means something big."
"We'll give Davis to-night and to-morrow night," said Roger, after pondering the matter a moment. "After that——"
"Hell's delight! And I almost hope that Davis falls down on whatever he's doing."
On the narrow there was no sign to indicate that Davis or any one else was concerned in the affairs of the district. The grim guards on the muck lands held their stations. It was apparent that they had orders not to leave the tract or to seek trouble, but to be ready to shoot and shoot accurately at any one venturing to trespass. Blease scouted northward on the ox-team trail and reported that Coon Hammock was still occupied. Payne himself went through the elderberry and saw grass jungle and through his glasses saw men guarding the approach to the Devil's Playground.
The strain was beginning to tell on all three men in the clearing. Each hour now seemed a day, each sight of a Garman man was a torture.
"It ain't human," muttered Blease. "I can't stand it."
Higgins lay flat on his back in his tent, staring up at the canvas.
"It had better be a dark night to-night," he said, with a grim smile. Roger silently agreed. And he realized that this was what Garman had foreseen and planned for when he digged the pit—the sense of imprisonment and the desperate attempt to break out, regardless of consequences.
"He's too smart to be just a man, Garman is," droned Blease; but Roger stopped him.
"He's nothing but a man; nothing but a man who likes to hurt. Don't let me hear you say he's anything but that."
To Roger and Higgins the sudden, fierce sunset came as a benison, presaging the coming of the night. There was no thought of food or sleep. Narrowly they watched the sun go angrily down in the west and the night come rolling over the heavens from the east. Clouds appeared, first a few scatterings of fleecy stuff, next solid cloud banks through which the waning moon strove in vain to send its rays.
"It will be a dark one," said Roger.
Higgins on his cot laughed harshly.
"Come through, Davis; to-night or never."
They lay out through the night, waiting, hoping for events, and they waited in vain. The first purple-rayed warning of sunrise in the morning found them in a mood of despair. As the second day came on with no sign of Davis they turned their steps toward the tents.
"I don't wait any longer," said Higgins, loading his rifle. "Soon as good shooting light comes I start doing business."
The others followed his example, and Blease led the way by a tortuous path through the elderberry jungle to a point near Deer Hammock. They crawled forward, ready to cover the pair of guards at the head of the canal. Blease was in the lead. Lying flat on his breast he thrust his rifle barrel out of the jungle, searching for his quarry. Presently he rubbed his eyes.
Roger crept close to him and searched the grass-covered expanse of drained land carefully with his glasses. Then he stood up and stepped out into the open.
The drained land was deserted. Garman's guards were gone.
The discovery brought neither relief nor elation to Roger. Amazement smote him dumb for a moment, then came suspicion that this was only another of Garman's traps. He strove to follow the man's psychology to an explanation of this move. Was Garman merely playing with him again, arousing false hopes which would be diabolically crushed?
That seemed the logical reason for the move. What would Garman's next move be?
"Looks like a trick, doesn't it?" said Higgins.
Roger strode down to the head of the main drainage ditch where two of the guards had held watch. The forms where the men had lain in the soft black muck behind the spoil bank were still sharply defined. Their departure must have occurred during the darkest hours of early morning. They had left behind them a flask full of colorless liquid, one whiff of which proved its contents to be moonshine whisky.
"Queer thing," said Blease. "Reckon they must have left in a hurry or they'd never have forgot their licker."
Higgins and Roger preceded cautiously over the tract, making sure that no guards lay hidden in the ditches. The trails left by the departing men were easily followed. They led, not to the river or toward Garman's as might have been expected, but scattered and lost themselves to the southward in the tangle morass of the cypress swamp. Here and there articles had been left behind in what savored of a flight; unopened canned goods, a deer carcass, a frying pan, a rifle and a pair of shoes. Roger studied the tracks leading into the swamp and saw that several of them had been made on the run. It was apparent from all signs that the guards had fled, driven by fear of something.
"Blease," said Roger suddenly, "you scout up the ox trail and see if they're gone from Coon Hammock, too; and, Higgins, you slip up towards the Devil's Playground and see what you can see."
He went on down the main ditch toward its junction with the headwaters of the Chokohatchee River, keeping a close watch for possible lurking danger beyond his line. Near the mouth of the ditch he found a dugout evidently left behind in the flight of the guards. In the dugout he paddled the rest of the distance down the ditch, hidden from sight by the spoil banks on the canal's sides.
It was broad daylight when suddenly he checked the canoe at the entrance to the river. The plop of a pair of paddles propelling a canoe upstream came from round a bend and Roger lay down flat on the bottom of the dugout, his rifle resting upon the prow. The rifle covered the spot where the canoe must come round the bend. He was on his own land, and he would not allow the guards to regain possession without a fight. He saw the white prow of the canoe shoot out past a tuft of saw-grass on the bend, and laid his eye to the sights. Another stroke of the paddles and the canoe was in full view, and Roger found his front sight bearing upon a button on the silken shirt which stretched taut across Garman's great chest.
A roar like the bellow of an angered bull welled from Garman's throat as he recognized Payne, an inarticulate cry of rage, then a silence. The current carried the canoe back a trifle and with an oath Garman drove it forward with his paddle. In the stern was Senator Fairclothe, dumb and helpless from fear.
Garman struck his paddle in the bottom and held the canoe motionless. His eyes, usually lazy and indifferent, now blazed beneath the fleshy brows with the madness of rage. He glared full in the eyes above the rifle barrel and bellowed:
"Where's Annette! —— you, Payne, give her up!"
Roger's heart leaped at the words. He felt an impulse to jump up and shout; but he kept his cheek to the rifle butt and responded:
"Keep to your own side of those stakes, Garman, or I'll sink your canoe."
"Answer me!" hissed Garman. "Answer me, or by God! the alligators will make a meal of you!"
"You've got your answer. Keep off and keep out of danger."
"Give her up! Do you hear: give her up or she'll be sorry she ever was born."
Roger pondered a moment for the right answer.
"Nothing doing," he said firmly.
"You admit she's come here then?"
"Keep your hands in sight, Garman," said Roger. "I'm taking no chances—now."
"You hear, Fairclothe?" demanded Garman. "She's run away to this squirt. She's been with him all night. By——! when I get hold of her there won't be any talk of marriage—now."
"You've got to come and get her first, Garman," retorted Roger. If Annette had fled she had undoubtedly gone to get away from Garman. Garman had jumped to the conclusion she had gone to Payne. She had not; and Roger reasoned that in some manner she had gone down the river, whence she would eventually reach civilization. Every hour that he could delay Garman from turning to this surmise would be valuable.
"You've got to come and take her," he repeated. "I won't give her up now."
"You hear him, Fairclothe?" sneered Garman. "What do you think of your daughter now? Nicely brought up, nicely watched, I must say. You poor—fool! You'd better jump in right here and drown yourself. He's had your Annette all night; now he's going to keep her at the point of a rifle. I suppose you intend to make the conventional restitution by marrying her, Payne? By——! I'll spoil that—I'll take her away from you. I'll turn her back to you when I'm tired of her. Then you can marry her, Payne! Give her up. I'll wipe you out, including her, before I'll let her get away like this."
"Come and get her," repeated Roger.
Fairclothe found his voice.
"I demand that you return my daughter, young man."
"I am not holding her against her will. She is free to return to you if she wishes to do so."
"I demand that I be allowed to speak to her."
"I cannot grant that demand."
"You refuse to allow me to communicate with her?"
"If she wishes to communicate with you I won't prevent it."
"You young scoundrel!"
Roger did not reply.
"If you have harmed my little girl, I warn you you will be punished to the utmost."
"You talk like a parrot!" snarled Garman. "Talk sense—if you can."
Fairclothe cleared his throat. "Did my daughter Annette come to you of her own free will?"
Roger hesitated before replying.
"No!" he said defiantly.
"Ah! Garman, Garman, what did I tell you—what did I tell you? I knew Annette never would leave you of her own free will!"
"You —— impudent squirt!" said Garman, "You mean to tell me you—— No, you wouldn't be man enough to steal her. Who brought her to you?"
Again Roger debated.
"If you come and get her as you threaten to do, you may find out."
Garman's rage was ghastly to behold. The flesh of his face seemed to swell in puffs, his nostrils widened, his eyes seemed to recede beneath the fleshy brows. He held up his great hairy hands, closing and opening them; but enough reason remained in his rage-drunken mind to comprehend the iciness of the blue eyes above the rifle barrel.
"By——! Fairclothe, I believe you did it yourself," he cried, venting his rage on the helpless Senator. "Don't try to talk back. I believe you did it, you and that dried-up, gold-digger of a sister. But by——! if you have you'll be yanked out of the Senate and go to jail, Fairclothe! Don't talk! I'm sick of you."
He jerked his paddle from the bottom and the current gently drew the canoe back downstream. Roger forced a smile of false triumph upon his face. He must not let Garman turn elsewhere to look for Annette.
"Licked, eh, Garman?" he taunted. "I'll go back and tell Annette about it. We'll enjoy it together."
The canoe was drifting down the bend.
"And come in a hurry, Garman, if you intend to get her; because if you wait long you won't find her here."
Garman appeared not to hear; but he swung the canoe round furiously, and paddled out of sight down the river.
Higgins and Blease returned soon afterward, each reporting that the guards to the northward had departed, apparently in the same hurried fashion as those on the muck land. Payne wasted no time in an attempt to puzzle out the reason for it. If Garman had withdrawn the men to lay a new trap, it was obvious that Annette's flight had upset his plans. For the time being at least his mind was too inflamed with rage over her daring in thwarting his will, to admit the consideration of any other problem. He would be too obsessed with thought for gratifying his revengeful lust to trouble about Payne's land.
Roger related briefly the fact of Garman's visit, omitting mention of Annette.
"Then he'll be coming back to clean us up, you think?" asked Higgins hopefully.
"I think so—I've got good reasons for believing so," replied Roger. "He won't come alone, but with a gang big enough to make sure of the job. Blease, this isn't your scrap at all, and I suspect it's going to be a real one. The ox trail is open and the mules can travel it, so you'd better take a span of them and drive your family out of danger."
"Reckon I won't," he said at last. "Family's safe in there in the elder bush. I'll stay. Mebbe get a chance to even up with Garman."
Roger selected a high spoil bank near the center of the muck land as his post. From there he could see any one who approached from the river or from the cypress swamp. Blease took up a hidden position in the elderberry jungle, from which he could cover the open prairie toward Garman's, and Higgins secreted himself in the palmetto scrub of Flower Prairie. Higgins awaited the expected onslaught merrily; Blease was hopeful of revenge; and Roger, as he lay with his rifle ready, smiled because Annette was out of Garman's power. Wherever she was, he felt she was safe. He pictured her as she had faced Garman fearlessly two nights before—straight, strong, self-reliant—and was confident that her absence was of her own doing, and that whatever the circumstances she was free of the influence of her aunt, of her father, of the drugging magnetism of Garman, and in control of her own destiny.
As the hours dragged by and he broiled beneath the merciless sun with no sign of a move on Garman's part, his confidence waned. Had Garman discovered that Annette was not at Payne's camp? Had he discovered her whereabouts?
Roger recalled the signs of an unpremeditated flight on the part of Garman's guards, and his heart sank. Was it possible that their flight had some connection with Annette's disappearance? They were all desperate men, the most vicious Of criminals, who had fled to safety in the cypress swamps because their savagery unfitted them for existence in a civilized environment. Inflamed by moonshine whiskey they would be capable of anything, even of forgetting for the moment of Garman's dominance of them.
Roger swore helplessly, and sought relief from his torturing thoughts in physical labor. The direct rays of the subtropical sun had dried and heated the surface of the soft muck land until it radiated heat like a stone pavement. With the butt of his rifle Roger dug deeply beneath the surface until he reached damp, cool earth and, scooping a hollow, stretched out full length to cool his burning body. A buzzard soared lazily about in the cloudless sky, and his thoughts leaped back to the flight of the desperadoes.
What a fool he had been to feel assured of Annette's safety merely because Garman was unaware of her whereabouts! She rode out in the evening—probably alone. And the rattlesnakes in the swamp were no more dangerous than the gang which Garman had scattered about the district!
He rose, and with glasses to his eyes peered through the dazzling heat waves, hoping against hope to catch some sign that Garman was coming. He gave up hope. Hours had passed. Garman would have been back long ago if he was coming. And he would have come if he had continued to believe that Annette was with Payne.
Garman must have discovered the true circumstances of Annette's disappearance. In no other way was his failure to return to be explained. And Roger had been lying there in the dirt, waiting like a fool, while Garman was taking measures to get her in his power again!
The dugout lay in the big ditch close to its junction with the river; and the river ran down to Garman's house. Roger stepped into the craft and shoved off. He was thrusting the boat out into the current of the river when a faint whip-like crack came to his ears. He shoved back and leaped ashore.
Higgins had fired a shot up on Flower Prairie.
Roger lay hugging the ground, his finger on the rifle trigger, peering through the dancing heat waves and straining his ears for the crack of shots in reply. He could not see Flower Prairie from his post, but Blease could; and he knew that the squatter was on the alert, ready to throw in aid of Higgins. He kept his own position because all three had agreed that Garman's gang would attack from several directions. If a single shot answered Higgins the latter could deal with his adversary; if it was a volley Roger and Blease would rush to his assistance.
The tense, breathless seconds passed; they became minutes, but no second shot shattered the sultry silence. Roger relinquished his rifle and picked up his glasses. Again he scanned the muck land and its boundaries without result. Presently he saw Blease emerge from the elderberry jungle. The squatter stood staring toward Flower Prairie where the shot had been fired. Then with a movement of relieved tension he threw his rifle over a shoulder and started to walk easily in the direction toward which he had gazed.
Roger followed him on the run. When he came to the little spring lake in the prairie he saw Blease squatting on his heels calmly regarding Higgins who, at the lakeside, was carefully washing the bloody shoulder of the Seminole, Willy High Pockets.
"Darn it all, Willy, why didn't you sing out, why didn't you sing out?" the engineer chattered in deep self-reproach. "Holy smoked fish! I wouldn't have had this happen for a farm; you know that, Willy. Hold steady; that's the stuff. Hell, Willy, I'll kick myself for the rest of my natural!"
"'Twon't hurt him none; a little bleeding's good in this weather," drawled Blease.
"You shoot ojus quick," said the Indian.
"I had to, Willy; I had to," protested Higgins. "Couldn't make you out, and I couldn't risk any one getting the drop on me."
"Shoot first; look who is by'm by. Holowaugus. No good."
"I took him for one of Garman's gang," explained Higgins to Payne. "I couldn't see for the brush."
"Did purty well, consid'ring that," ventured Blease.
"Esoka—Bonus-che why-o-me," said Willy.
"Why-o-me—me want some."
"Is that what you came for?" demanded Roger.
The Indian shook his head.
"Chobee eestee hotkee (big white man) send me."
"No. Chobee eestee hotkee come soon himself. He say I go here. I come. Him shoot. Esoka—bonus—chee why-o-me."
"No. No whiskey," said Roger. "Who is this big white man, Willy?"
"Him come ojus soon. Etalitke. (Talk much) Friend you. Gimme tobacco."
Later, while Higgins and Roger were sewing up the wound in Willy's shoulder, Blease suddenly uttered a warning whistle.
"Some one coming—walking heavy—through the saw grass."
"No shoot first, look by'm by!" protested Willy. As the intruder broke out of the saw grass into plain sight he said: "Him chobee eestee hotkee."
The visitor was bearded and ragged from dwelling in the swamp, but he strode up to the camp with a confident, even aggressive step, such as no true swamp denizen would use; and presently, beneath the beard, the matted hair and ragged clothes Roger recognized Davis, the man whom they had helped to escape from the Cormorant that first day on the river. Davis' attention was concentrated upon Willy's wound.
"What?" he said hopefully. "Are there still some of them round?"
When the accident had been explained he turned to Roger.
"The United States Government missed by two hours last night the biggest round-up of egret shooters ever made. Garman tried a gang of pugs first, and you cleaned them out. Then he yanked his egret shooters out of the rookery and put them on the job. It was the first time in two years' work that I'd known 'em to be in a bunch. I got fifty government men assembled at Citrus Grove for a round-up; but the crooks down here got word of it somehow and streaked it into the cypress swamp. We've got the rookery, got twenty good men hidden there; they'll never shoot there again; and the rest of the men are after the gang in the cypress swamp. We lost out last night; but I think Garman's egret graft is broken up for good."
"Garman? Is he in that, too?"
"Payne, do you know anything round here that Garman isn't in? He's boss of the egret graft down here."
"Have you got evidence of that?"
"I'll say we have. A photograph of him trying out the gas gun he invented on a bunch of nests."
"Then why don't you get him if he's the head of the gang—first of all?"
Davis' lips came together in a bitter line.
"Did you ever hear of a big man—one of the really big ones of the country—being got for anything? No; the other big men, the whole gang of them up in Washington, won't let it be done. They can't afford to, as a matter of self-protection."
"Great Scott! Garman isn't so big that the Government is afraid of him?"
"How much do you know about Garman, Payne?"
"Not much, I admit."
"I'll give you his number: He has among a lot of other things, a home in Washington, an office in Jacksonville and the house here and the Egret. When he is at home in Washington, some of the most powerful statesmen in this great nation regularly infest his house to prove what truly great poker players they are. No statesmen ever lost any money there, for only those whom Garman can use and who will listen to business reason are invited. No statesman accepts a vulgar bribe, but several who attend Garman's stags win heavily and consistently at poker.
"At Jacksonville, in his suite of offices, there is one door without a name on it, and that is Mr. Garman's private office.
"On his boat, the Egret, he has as his guests during the tourist season some of the most prominent people of the country.
"When the season is over, or before it is on, he has no guests down here. That is his vacation time, the time when Garman plays.
"There are more criminal refugees in the wilds of this swamp country than anywhere else in this land. There is no man in Garman's employ, white, black or red, who hasn't got a price on his head somewhere. There are bandits from Cuba, crooks from large cities, negroes escaped from chain gangs, men of unspeakable crimes, the most vicious men of mixed blood ever gathered together since the old pirate days; and these are Garman's playfellows of his vacation time. He is absolutely their boss.
"Why does he do it? Because there's money in it. How? There!" Davis reached into his grub bag and threw on the ground the limp, snow-white corpse of a beautiful egret. "That's one of the side issues. There's money in it. Garman saw the rookeries, and couldn't keep his hands off them. These snow-white birds, feeding young ones in the nest, are worth money. Garman's gang gets a living, food, liquor and immunity out of the slaughter, an average probably of one dollar a bird. Garman gets the rest. And his boat Egret in his harvest time is nothing but a damn slaughter house, the hold packed with the skins of thousands of murdered birds."
"But I thought the Government had taken steps to stop the slaughter. Aren't there guards about the rookeries?"
"There are. Who do you suppose got them their jobs? Garman—in Washington. How do you suppose they guard? They guard so carefully that nobody can get into the rookeries, not a soul except Garman's gang. Officially the egret shooting is stopped. Actually it is an industry and is in Garman's hands.
"But there are good, progressive men down here—men who really wish to develop the country on a sound, honest basis," said Payne. "Why, don't they get after this rotten business?"
"Few of them know anything about it. Garman has the business monopolized; only a few shooters, those absolutely under his control, and the birds spirited away in the Egret. All done so efficiently that few people believe there is any shooting done. Formerly the egrets were to be counted by millions, they were uncountable. They are good breeders. But since their shooting has been 'stopped' officially there hasn't been any noticeable increase in their numbers, which certainly would have been the case if the shooting actually had been done away with.
"Do you know why Garman wants to bust you? Principally because your settling here and draining and developing that piece of drowned land would be the opening wedge in the settlement of the district. You've shown what can be done with this land. People would come flocking in, farmers, real settlers, not the fugitives nor the crooked real-estate men who so far have had a monopoly down here. The outlaws would have to go. Egret shooting would have stop. Garman couldn't play king here any longer. That's why he's out to bust you, Payne. Keep your eyes skinned. He'll try to smash you in a hurry now."
"You are not going to try to get him then?" asked Roger slowly.
"No use. We'll break up his gang and stop the egret shooting, but Garman——"
Davis shrugged his shoulders.
"Garman is too big!" said Roger. "He will still be cock-o'-the-walk round here. Is that it?"
"Well, he won't have his gang," replied the detective.
"But he will still be—Garman."
"Well—you know what he is."
"He'll want to be boss of the district—— He'll try to hog your land."
"Hog is a good word there," ruminated Roger. But he was not thinking about his land.
The arrival of Davis had in no way affected the situation as Roger had suddenly seen it just before Higgins' shot had attracted his attention.
Garman had discovered that Annette was not at Payne's camp. Otherwise he would have returned to get her. And this discovery meant that he knew of her whereabouts and was taking steps to pursue her, to get her into his power again. Perhaps he had even succeeded in doing so.
Roger slipped away from camp while supper was being prepared, and returned to the dugout which he had left in the big ditch near the river. Precious time had been lost through the arrival of Davis. Garman, for the nonce a jungle beast running wild with the reek of rage and lust about him, had had hours of opportunity to wreak his revenge.
Roger leaped into the dugout and paddled down the river toward Garman's house. The place seemed dead and deserted as he stepped onto the dock, and his heart sank with dismay. The Egret was gone.
In the boathouse a young sailor was loading several huge trunks into a small launch.
"Closing up for the season?" asked Roger as casually as possible.
"I dunno what they're doing," grumbled the man. "Fine trick leaving one man to handle stuff like this."
Roger lent a hand. "What did they do, forget this when they left?" he asked.
"They did not!" grinned the sailor. "Mr. Garman didn't give them time to forget anything. He loaded 'em onto the Egret and shot 'em down the river without giving them time to forget anything."
"He must have been in a hurry to get away?"
Roger's words were calm, but the beat of his heart was shaking his ribs.
"Who? Mr. Garman? He didn't sail. Just Senator Fairclothe and Mrs. Livingstone. 'Get aboard,' he says, and they got. 'Get to hell out of here!' he says to the captain. 'Where to?' says the captain. 'Get!' says Mr. Garman. Talk about a temper! There was blue lightning and an eighty-mile wind round here till they'd sailed."
"Mr. Garman staying behind alone?"
"Alone?" said the sailor with a colossal wink. "Oh, I guess not—not so you could notice it."
And the next moment he found himself picked up, flung against the wall and nailed there by a grip that cut to the bone.
"Talk straight now, boy, if you value whole bones," said Roger. "Is Miss Fairclothe here with Garman?"
"Not here—nobody here but the cook and caretaker."
"Mr. Garman rode away some place after the Egret had sailed."
"Sure. She wasn't here at all."
Roger went up to the big house. The caretaker, a pudgy little man with the stench of whisky on his breath, was waiting for him.
"A note for you, sir. Mr. Garman said he expected, sir, that you would be round."
The note was addressed to Garman in a clear feminine hand, and it read: "Garman: Am at the cottage on Palm Island; come to-night. Annette." At the bottom in a huge masculine scrawl, were three words; "Poor Payne! Garman."
"Palm Island?" repeated Willy High Pockets. "Garman got house on Palm Island. Yes."
"Do you know where it is?" asked Roger.
It was night, and he had called Willy High Pockets away from the camp to ask him the question. The time intervening from the receipt of the note at Garman's and the present had been like a nightmare. He had wandered in the jungle and laughed aloud at himself for a sentimental fool. Garman was right: dreams, ideals, high hopes were only illusions, only lies, fairy-like mirages to lead a man into the barren desert of experience. The note in his pocket proved it. He read the note over and over again.
"Come to-night, Annette."
His laughter each time he scanned the words was a mirthless expression of despair. Garman was right. Garman had won.
"Willy," he asked, "where is Palm Island?"
"Little lake in woods down there." Willy pointed into the darkness toward the timber line that marked the western boundary of the sand prairie. "Island in lake."
"Is it far?"
"Yes, many mile in woods."
"All right, Willy. Go to bed."
Roger came upon the little lake in the woods just as the dawn was coating its waters with a thick purple. He saw a canoe pulled upon the beach and paddled out to the island. A circle of stately royal palms, their tops gorgeously golden in the sun's first rays, their smooth trunks still black, with the darkness of night, ringed the island round. Within the circle of palms was a luxurious tangle of tropical plants, of flowers, of lazily drooping vines. Payne followed a winding path through the odorous jungle and came to the tiny bungalow hidden in the heart of it all.
"Garman!" he called hoarsely; and by the manner in which his voice echoed in the stillness he knew no living being was about the place.
He entered softly, almost fearing to find the signs he sought. One of Garman's large cigars, lighted and thrown away after a few puffs, lay on the verandah. The place inside was a wreck. Broken furniture, shattered glass, torn curtains and bedding, lay about in aimless disorder, as if some wild animal had run amuck there tearing and trampling to pieces all it touched. Windows and frames had been smashed with terrific blows. There were dents in the floor where it had been beaten furiously with an iron bedpost.
Roger came out and tried to think. What had happened? Had Garman deliriously celebrated his triumph in an orgy of destruction? There was no sign of a struggle. He left the island hurriedly.
The morning sun was high in the heavens when Roger emerged from the woods onto the prairie on his way back to Garman's house. He followed no path. He was running head down, seeing and hearing nothing. He smashed through a clump of palmetto scrubs into an opening of barren white sand, and from another thicket came Garman, a rifle in his hands, plunging toward him, blind and deaf, maddened and purple-faced with rage.
They were almost face to face when they saw one another.
There was no time to think of weapons, no time to think at all. They sprang at one another with a cry that was old when man invented the cleft-stick stone ax. There is a note of joy in that cry as well as that of rage. Roger leaped primitively to grapple and break his enemy with bare hands. Garman tossed his rifle away and came on intent upon the same purpose.
They clinched; and the moment Roger felt those vast soft hands tightening upon him the shock brought back to him a sort of reason. Garman was the stronger. His right hand caught Roger's clenched fist within an inch of his chin, and his gorilla grip held the fist helpless. His huge hand encased Roger's fist as one might hold a baseball; and slowly, surely, gloatingly he bent the arm.
Garman was the stronger. This was the thought which now monopolized Roger's mind. By natural law Garman would be the victor in this primitive struggle; and considering the man and the circumstances, Roger had no illusions as to what this would mean to him. So far as his own entity was concerned the mental picture of himself as Garman's victim did not disturb him greatly; he had lost all that man may hope for in life; no fear came into his heart as he realized how much Garman was his physical superior.
An impulse to throw himself madly upon his opponent regardless of consequences followed the picture; but with a sudden determination he controlled it. A few wild, reckless spasms and he knew the fight would be over. Once those terrible hands, with their fat, suctionlike palms, found a vital hold they would not let go; and Garman was an experienced fighter, and wild fighting would soon present him the opportunity which he would see and seize.
Roger placed himself wholly upon the defensive, and while he skillfully resisted Garman's efforts to end the struggle at once, he fought with himself a struggle for calm reason.
He could not win. That was the basis from which he began to reason. Garman was the stronger man, so much stronger that against him Roger's powerful young body thrust as against the trunk of an immovable tree. For a moment the pair had held motionless, Garman's bulk and might held for the instant by Roger's impetuous rush, but now the Plunderer's strength was telling and he was slowly thrusting his victim back.
As he retreated before the irresistible strength that was dominating him, Roger was winning a battle with himself. All the youth and pride and strength of him were rebelling at even momentary subjection, but his will was swiftly gaining the ascendancy within him. The body cried for a swift and terrible struggle; the mind demanded patience. For though he could not win he would if he could, before he succumbed, hurt Garman so terribly that victory would be too dearly purchased to be enjoyed.
The first clash was over; Garman, contented at having proved himself the stronger, had ceased to thrust against Roger, and in a moment the pair came to a standstill. Roger's left fist was still held helpless in Garman's grip while with his right he fended away the Plunderer's hand at his throat. Garman was not striking; his great left hand like a wide-open claw came forward seeking a throttling grip, while the wild light in his eyes and the ghastly smile on his face showed how sure he was of an easy triumph.
"I've got you, Payne!" he roared. "Let that sink into your soul. I've got you. Out here nobody will come or hear you when you begin to shriek for mercy. Oh, you're going to shriek, all right; don't have any doubt about that. I know how to do it; I'm going to have some fun out of this mess after all. Yes, enough fun to pay for all the damage you've done me. I'm going to play with you, sonny; I'm going to show you tricks you never heard of. I'm going to make you last a long time after you begin to shriek and beg me to kill you, and every minute of it will be to me like a dream come true. Buck me, will you? Then come to me!"
The last words were accompanied by a sudden jerk. Garman's arms licked out viciously and Roger found himself clasped to his enemy's breast. A horror possessed him such as he had never imagined, for Garman's whole body seemed like his hands, soft, clinging, destructive; and Roger put all his strength in the effort and broke free.
He must not let Garman get him like that again, he thought as he fought back. It had cost him too much energy to break the hold. Garman had been a trifle too assured, not realizing fully his opponent's strength; and the next time he would make sure that there was no escape from his gorilla-like arms.
"Come to me, Payne," he repeated softly, reaching for another grip. "I've got you; feed your soul on those words. So young and full of life; but I've got you out here in the swamp where nobody can see or hear. Why, sonny, I doubt if they'll ever find you, or what's left, after I get through."
Roger, calm again after his sudden effort, watched for an opening and shot his left like a bullet against the huge, gross mouth. Almost in the same second he side-stepped and brought his right in an arc to the mark above Garman's belt and leaped back out of danger. Garman did not stir, and though the blow on the mouth cut it did not efface the sneer on his lips.
"Or what's left after I get through," he repeated. "Let your mind take hold of that, sonny. It won't be pretty to look at, but never mind; you won't be able to see it. All alone, out here in the swamp and the buzzards will be waiting."
He lunged and Roger slipped by his guard, smashed his fist into the mouth again and pivoted to safety.
"The buzzards will be waiting, Payne," continued Garman in his monotone. "Big hungry one, up there in the cypress. But the Mexican Buzzards, the little brown fellows, will come down from the trees first—fierce little Mexican buzzards—not afraid to tackle a thing still living a little and groaning!"
Roger scarcely heard the last words, for Garman was on him like a fury, striking, clawing, cursing.
"Hit me, will you! Try your boxer's tricks on me, eh?" he roared. "I'll stamp your head into the ground."
The rush carried them back to the fringe of palmetto scrub, and at the touch of sharp leaves on his back Roger leaped to one side and away from the scrub. So swiftly did he move that Garman was unable to turn with him, and Roger flung his arms about the raging enemy's middle and lifted him in the air. Then Garman laughed softly, for his paws dropped upon Roger's wrists, as he threw himself face downward upon the ground. Roger was on top but for a moment he was helpless, his wrists imprisoned beneath Garman's body.
"The Mexican buzzards, sonny; the little fierce fellows. I've got you; I've got you sure this time."
Roger relaxed in apparent defeat; then bending his supple body like a bow he managed to drive a knee with all his power into the small of Garman's back. The upper part of the huge, gross body came up with a jerk; a cry of mingled pain and rage escaped Garman; his grip relaxed and Roger tore himself free.
The terrific wrench of the back would have prostrated any normal man, but Garman, rolling swiftly, came to his feet and rushed again with new fury.
The fight raged across the clearing and back again, Garman striving to drive his agile opponent into the brush and entangle him, Roger carefully avoiding this danger which would have enabled Garman to come to grips. Time after time the latter rushed and each time Roger eluded his grasp. When a safe opportunity offered Roger struck and leaped to safety, refusing to permit Garman's taunts to rouse him to reckless fury.
"Run, why don't you, sonny? Turn and beat it. You're fast; you might get away."
Roger did not reply to these efforts to provoke him; he circled just out of reach, watching with icy eyes for the big man's next move. And when it came he was ready to meet it. His mind was clear and cool; one chance he had and one only,—that Garman would tire himself. As the fight went on and it became obvious that Garman, despite his efforts, was as fresh as ever, Roger abandoned this hope; and now he became more calm, more icy-eyed than ever.
It was a fight to death and his only purpose now to die hard and fighting to the last breath. A grim satisfaction, a pride, almost a joy, in the perfect condition of body, of his strength and agility, began to grow in him. The joy of life, the purposes and hopes of a man's existence; the hope of love, all that had been put away; and he had become the stark fighting man, single of idea, barren of hope, but efficient. The intoxication of battle began to creep upon him. From the toes of his light strong feet to the top of his head his body thrilled with the strong man's joy in his own strength; and only his iron will, which had consecrated his strength to the uttermost possible harming of Garman, prevented him from shouting exultantly. Instead he stepped in when the opportunity presented itself and swung his right with all his power to Garman's long, heavy jaw. The blow would have felled any other man like a pole-axed ox, but Garman's head merely rolled back on its thick neck and that was all.
A new gleam of craftiness in Garman's eyes warned Roger to extraordinary alertness, and when the other, pretending to seek a moment's rest, suddenly lashed out a kick for the groin, the young man threw himself away, escaping with a blow on the hip. Anger flamed in him anew, the anger of the fair fighter at a treacherous trick, and at the sight of the change in him Garman permitted himself a little smile, and Roger again forced himself to grow calm. He retreated, striking, ducking, side-stepping, he circled the clearing. Once his foot slipped on the barrel of Garman's rifle, and he kicked it to one side. As he did so Garman kicked again, at the knee this time; but now Roger was ready, he caught his foot behind the other's heel, heaved up and threw the big man heavily.
"God—you!" bellowed Garman as he sprang up, and the smile was gone from his face.
The fighting now became bestial, brutal, animal-like in its unreasoning fury. Driven wild with humiliation over the heavy throw, Garman lowered his head and charged like a mad bull, butting, striking, kicking. His blows were wild, but their power was irresistible; Roger's guard was beaten down, he tried in vain to escape; and one of the blows went home on his forehead and knocked him into the palmetto scrub. With both feet he kicked viciously at the huge head that was rushing at him; Garman's rush stopped sharply; and Roger was on his feet and out in the open ere his opponent had recovered.
Garman was insane with rage; Roger was icy calm. They had been fighting so long now and so furiously that he knew the end could not be long delayed. He realized how narrowly he had escaped; had his kick missed Garman would have been on top of him. He must not go down again.
His heart was thumping so his ribs shook, and his breath was coming in gulps between parted lips. Garman's lips were smashed beyond all resemblance to a mouth, and the heaving of his great chest told how the pace was telling. His first kick had done the work, however. A numbness was spreading over Roger's right leg. In the heat of combat he had not realized how severe was the kick that had been dealt him, but now the fact came home.
He was slowing up. Well, he would do all the damage he could before the stiffening limb permitted Garman to catch him in that horrible gorilla grip. And then Garman spoke:
"You got the girl you —— young pup, but I've got you."
New strength coursed through Roger's heart. His lightninglike feint drew Garman's guard low; he swung his right in an over-hand blow full upon his opponent's hawk-like nose. Garman's mouth opened wide as he struggled for breath, and Roger knew the damage he had done. Again he feinted, again he swung—and a bone in his right hand snapped as the fist went home on the top of his enemy's suddenly lowered head.
Garman laughed through the welter of his broken face, and rushed, and Roger's straight left stopped him. Again the left flashed into the battered face, and again. Roger was fighting with the desperation of his last remnants of strength. One hand was useless, his leg was stiffening rapidly, but his left worked havoc with the other's features.
Garman drew back. His eyes gleamed with comprehension and triumph. Maddened and reckless Roger rushed and struck and got away; and then suddenly, in one uncontrollable spasm of rage Garman went wild. His tone became an animal roar of rage, his fighting that of a beast. And as Roger side-stepped and dodged he knew that the end had come. He floundered and stumbled; his right leg was fast becoming useless.
Garman had only to keep on rushing.
Roger slipped on something hard and realized that it was the rifle. As he leaped up and away he saw Garman's eye catch a glint of the weapon. With a terrific effort Roger lunged forward. Too late. Garman had stooped to dig the weapon from the trodden sand. Roger struck with the desperation of life or death behind his blow. His fist landed full on the neck below the ear; Garman grunted bestially and pitched forward on his face. The sight seemed to flood Roger's body with unbounded strength, the strength of hope reborn after despair has held sway. He jerked the rifle from his opponent's hands. Garman was on his hands and knees, sneering grotesquely at Roger's face above the leveled barrel. And suddenly Roger swung the rifle round and threw it out of reach in the palmetto scrub.
"Get up!" he panted hoarsely. "I've got you now."
Garman rose on tottering legs and came on. He could not fight any longer, but he could blaspheme, and the foulest curses rolled from his lips. Finally he uttered Annette's name. Roger set himself and drove his fist to the point of the heavy, fat jaw. And as a marionette falls when its suspending strings are cut, so Garman collapsed and lay a huge, shapeless heap in the reddened sand.
Hours later Roger found himself on the bank of the river far below Garman's house. He had wandered wildly, avoiding paths, dodging clearings, holding to dark, shaded jungle-land, like a hurt animal seeking to hide its wounds from the light of day. The joy of victory over Garman glowed steadily in his bosom, yet though he knew that Garman now was a broken man and that he no longer would attempt to play king in the district, he also knew that the fruits of the victory were like ashes upon his tongue. He felt old and defeated, like a man suddenly robbed of his illusions. Garman had been right; he had been dwelling in the Fool's Paradise of Youth, accepting dreams for realities. Now, he had "torn the mask of illusions from the face of Life and seen the old hag as she really is."
Garman's phrases kept ringing in his ears, and with repetition they came to hold a note of mocking triumph.
Garman was whipped, yet he had won. His words remained to cut and torture. In his state of semidelirium Roger began to doubt that he had won over Garman. The doubt became a certainty. Defeat, not victory, was his portion. Garman's was the victory, the victory of bitter knowledge over the vaporish ideals of youth.
Roger stooped to drink from a clear pool at the river's brink and shrank back at the reflection he beheld in the water. A strange, lined face stared up at him. He shut his eyes as he drank, then plunged his head into the pool. Cooled off and cleansed, he again studied his reflection. The traces of dust and combat were washed away, and he saw how little they had to do with the transformation. The change was deeper than the skin, deeper than the flesh. It had bitten into the spirit; and the bitterness and hate in his eyes, the cynical sneer that leered up at him, sprang from the change that had taken place in his soul.
Garman was still winning.
Roger laughed aloud, and at the sound of his voice checked himself abruptly. He turned away from the pool, cursing it for what it had revealed, and stumbled back into the darkness of the jungle.
In time he came to the spot where he and Garman had fought. His enemy was gone. It was some minutes before Roger realized how this disappointed him. He had returned to tell Garman he was right. He no longer hated Garman. Garman made him see the truth.
Later, as he sat near the spot where his foe had fallen, he saw that others had visited the spot recently. There were a multitude of fresh tracks in the sand about the palmetto scrub. He regarded them indifferently until he saw the deep marks of Higgins' hunting boots. Besides these he saw other men's tracks, including the marks of Willy High Pocket's bare feet. And then he saw that which sent the blood racing to his head.
Clearly outlined in the sand were the marks of a girl's tennis slippers, and he knew they were Annette's.
He searched the sand like a hound now, seeking signs of what had happened. He saw where the tracks had come into the clearing—Higgins, Willy High Pocket and Annette. They had been running. Then he saw how they had scattered, searching the country round, and had returned to the spot where Garman lay. From there they had gone toward the path leading to Garman's house. There were tracks of half a dozen men. Garman's was among them. He had, apparently, been helped to his feet and led away.
As the last rays of the setting sun were gilding the palm tops Roger pushed aside a curtain of moon vine and looked out upon Garman's house and the little lake beyond. To his surprise the Egret lay at the dock, the captain on the bridge, ready to start downstream. Higgins, Davis and Willy High Pockets were standing near the pergola looking toward the house. Presently they turned and walked slowly out of sight and hearing.
Garman came tottering out of the house onto the walk leading to the dock. He was freshly clad and extensively bandaged. Beside him walked Annette, supporting him with the strength of her tall young body. Garman was broken physically, but his spirit remained strong.
Suddenly he halted, painfully freeing his arm from her supporting hand.
"No," he mumbled through his bandages, "I can't let you do that."
"But I want to help you to the boat," she protested. "You're very weak, you know."
Garman tottered, yet he gestured her away. He spoke slowly, each word an effort.
"Might it occur to you that even in my present condition I might be capable of feeling a sense of humiliation at being helped away—by you?"
"I wouldn't want you to feel that," she replied.
"Ha!" he laughed faintly, "The magnanimity of victorious youth toward the conquered. Star-eyed youth has won, and——"
"Oh, please don't take up that old strain, Mr. Garman. You are badly hurt; you must think of getting to a doctor at once."
"Can the leopard change his spots?" he said. "No. He doesn't want to. I was very weak a moment ago. My strength is returning. But I am not. A strong man leaves and forgets the scene of his defeat, and the defeat. You will never see me again. Can you bear up under that?"
"I'm very sorry to hear you say things like that."
Garman swayed like a broken tree, but despite it he smiled sardonically.
"You had hoped I had changed?" His voice was little more than a painful whisper. Swaying drunkenly, almost falling, he drove himself on to speak. "That the leopard's spots had become whiter than snow? My dear Miss Fairclothe, people don't change like that. Behold yourself: even the jungle and sun, even I, couldn't change you. The flesh wavered, but the soul held true. I won't play the hypocrite and say I am glad you were too strong for me. I am not. I wish I could have made you like myself. Now I'm going away and forget you and all this, and the whole affair of civilization. If you feel sorry for me your emotion is wasted. On the whole it will be a relief for me. Business, and so on—I was getting pretty well bored with the whole thing."
He staggered grotesquely toward the dock and halted.
"And don't you worry about Payne. You'll find him. Trust the woman to find the man she's marked for her victim! No, no! Don't grow indignant; I'll change 'victim' to 'mate.' There's really little difference. Payne's all right." A quiver of pain convulsed him. "He's got some brains, too. Not too much, but enough. You two are too perfectly matched for anything to keep you apart, and, having joined one another, too perfectly matched to avoid fighting." He chuckled faintly behind his bandages. "Oh, yes, you'll fight, my dear girl, take my word for that; he's got a will of his own, too. But your fights will be embraces in disguise."
He tottered toward the river and again turned.
"Will you shake hands with me before I go?" he asked.
"Why, yes," she said. "Of course."
Garman chuckled, but turned away without touching her proffered hand.
"I merely wanted to know," he said, and went staggering on his away aboard the Egret. He mumbled an order and an oath to the captain. The Egret slipped swiftly down the river.
Annette watched until the yacht had gone. When she turned round Roger was coming toward her. She cried out, a cry of relief, of happiness, of love.
"Annette!" he whispered, and came close to her.
"Wait, wait!" she said. "There are things to be explained."
"I know." He moved back a step. "I was a brute, too."
"Oh—that! It was terrible, I know, but you were not the aggressor. I mean about the note."
"Do notes—or things like it—matter now?" he asked.
"Yes; they matter very, very much. I wish to explain. I—I went out there to Palm Island to fight out my fight with myself."
He looked at her radiant young face and said: "You won."
"Yes, that is the wonderful part of it: I didn't know whether I would win when I went there. Garman was so terribly strong. He dominated me, and seemed to control my thoughts and feelings. But—do you remember what you said in the path there the other day—when I asked you to go away—when Garman spied on us?"
"What was it?" he asked.
"Oh! Don't you remember?"
"Let me see—I called Garman a cad."
"Oh, no, no, no! You remember you said—you said——"
He looked in her eyes and understood.
"I said I loved you."
"Yes. That's what saved me. I knew. I felt it here in my heart how you loved me. Roger, I felt it from the moment we met."
"Yes," he said, "I loved you from that moment, Annette."
"And I you, Roger. But it seemed so impossible. I used to think it must be a dream. Aunty, father, Garman and all the selfishness; and then in the midst of it all finding such a love—such a love as girls dream of, Roger. And I was afraid Garman had me in his power. So I went to the island and fought it out. And then I knew it was all right—because all I thought of was you. So I sent him that note. I was a little afraid of him, and I wanted to lure him away, so I could—well, I wanted him away."
"I can't tell you, dear."
"Please don't make me tell. I'm ashamed."
"Very well then."
She turned her flushed face up toward him.
"Do you really want to know?"
"If you wish to tell me."
"I wanted him away—so I could come to you. I hurried straight to your camp. Am I shameless, Roger? Then we hunted for you. Roger——"
"I am not worthy of you," he said, "but I love you."
"Do you think we will really fight?"
They laughed together, the joyous laughter of youth, her head upon his breast and his arms about her.
"Probably," he said.
And they laughed again.