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flickered over Gavin Brice and the three other officers who stood there in the shadow. Then, with that same easy. confident smile on his masklike, pallid face, the spy had turned his glittering black eyes on the officers at the courtmartial table.

“Gentlemen,” he had said amusedly. “you need not go through the farce of trying me. I am guilty. I say this with no bravado and with no fear. Because the bullet has never been molded and the rope has never been plaited that can kill me. And the cell is not yet made that can hold me.”

He had said it smilingly, and in a velvet suave voice. Yes, and he had made good his boast. For–condemned to die at daylight–he had escaped from his ill-constructed prison room in the chateau a little before dawn and had gotten clean away after killing one of his guards.

“He never set eyes on me except for that instant, there in the shadows,” Brice found himself reflecting for the hundredth time. “And there were all the others with me. Yet last night he recalled my face. It’s lucky he didn’t recall where he’d seen it. Or–perhaps he did.”

With a start. he came out of his half-hypnotic daze–a daze which had endured but a few seconds. And once more his rallying will-power and senses made him acutely alive to the hideous peril in which he crouched.

Then–in one of the odd revulsions which flash across men at unnaturally high tension–his daze and his terror merged all at once into a blaze of wholesome rage. Nor was his rage directed against Rodney Hade, but against Milo Standish, the man whose life he had saved not twenty hours earlier, and who had repaid that mighty service now by helping to arrange his murder.

At the thought Brice grew hot with fury. He longed to stand face to face with the blackguard who had rewarded a life-gift in such vile fashion. He yearned to tell Standish in fiery words how unspeakable had been the action, and then foot to foot, fist to fist, to take out of the giant’s hide some tithe of the revenge due for such black ingratitude.

The ferocious impulse set steady his quivering nerves. No longer did his brain race uselessly. Again it was alert, resourceful, keen.

Standish! Yes, and no doubt Standish’s sister too! The girl whose eyes had made him feel as if he were on holy ground–the girl whom he had been so irritatingly unable to get out of his mind!

With an angry shake of the head Gavin dismissed Claire from his thoughts. And his newborn hate concentrated on her brother who had betrayed to death his rescuer. Obsessed with the fierce craving to stand face to face with the blonde-bearded giant he banished his lethargy of hopelessness and cast about for means of escape. out of this seemingly inescapable snare.

First, the key must be found. Then the door must be reached and opened. In the way of both enterprises writhed a half dozen or more deadly snakes. And to the problem of winning past them alive and getting to his enemy. Gavin Brice bent his trained faculties.

The box whereon he sat was covered with loose boards nailed down only at one end, a long strip of thin iron or copper binding the one unopened edge. So much his groping fingers told him. Moving to one corner of the box top he pushed aside a board and plunged his hand into the interior. It was as he had hoped. According to custom when the box had been emptied the jute and shredded paper stuffing of its contents had been thrust back into it for future use.

Feverishly, Gavin began to pull forth great handfuls of paper and of excelsior. These he piled onto the box top. Then, exerting all his skilled strength, he tugged at the narrow iron strip which bound, lengthwise, one side of the box.

This task was by no means easy, for the nails were long. And the iron’s sharp edges cut cruelly into the tugging fingers. But, inch by inch, he tore it free. And at the end of three minutes he was strengthening and testing a willowy five-foot strip of metal. Laying this across his knees and fishing up another double handful of the packing paper and jute he groped in his pockets with bleeding fingertips for a match.

He found but one. Holding it tenderly he scraped its surface against his nail–a trick he had picked up in the army. The sulphur snapped and ignited, the wooden sliver burning freely in that windless air.

Giving it a good start, he touched the point of flame to the piled jute and paper in front of him. It caught in an instant. Still holding the lighted match, he repeated this ticklish process time after time, tossing handfuls of the blazing stuff down onto the floor at his side.

In two minutes more he had a gayly-flaming pile of inflammable material burning high there. Its gleam lightened every inch of the gloomy room. It brought out into hideous clearness the writhing dark bodies of the crawling moccasins, even to the patches of white at their lips which gave them their sinister name of “cottonmouths.” Fat and short and horrible to look upon, they were, as they slithered and twisted here and there along the bright-lit floor or coiled and hissed at sight of the flame and of the fast plying hand and arm of the captive just above them.

But Brice had scant eyes or heed for them. Now that his blaze was started past danger of easy extinction. he plunged both hands again into the box. And now. two handfuls at a time. he began to cast forth more and more of the stuffing.

With careful aim he threw it. Presently there was a wide line of jute and paper extending from the main blaze across to the next box. Then another began to pile up in an opposite direction, toward the door. The fire ran greedily along these two lines of fuel.

Meantime the room was no longer so clearly lighted as at first. For the smoke billowed up to the low roof, and in thick waves poured out through the small ventilator. Such of it as could not find this means of outlet doubled back floorward, filling the room with chokingly thick fumes which wellnigh blinded and strangled the man and blotted out all details of shape and direction.

But already Gavin Brice had slipped to the floor, his thin-shod feet planted in the midst of the blaze, whose flames and sparks licked eagerly at his ankles and legs.

Following the trail of fire which led to the box. Gavin strode through the very center of this blazing path, heedless of the burns. Well did he know the snakes would shrink away from actual contact with the fire. And he preferred surface burns to a fatal bite in ankle or foot.

As he reached the box its corners had already caught fire from the licking flames below. Heaving up the burning receptacle. Brice looked under it. There lay the rusty key, just visible through the lurid smoke glare. But not ten inches away from the far side of it coiled a moccasin, head poised threateningly as the box grazed it under Gavin’s sharp heave.

Stooping, Brice snatched up a great bunch of the flaming paper and flung it on the serpent’s shining coils. In practically the same gesture he reached with lightning quickness for the key.

By a few inches he had missed his hurried aim for the moccasin. He had intended the handful of fire to land on the floor just in front of it, thus causing it to shrink back. Instead the burning particles had fallen stingingly among its coils.

The snake twisted its arrow-shaped head as if to see what had befallen it. Then catching sight of Brice’s swooping hand it struck.

But the glance backward and the incredibly quick withdrawal of the man’s hand combined to form the infinitesimal space which separated Gavin from agonizing death. The snake’s striking head missed the fast-retreating fingers by less than a hair’s breadth. The fangs met on the wards of the rusty key Brice had caught up in his fingertips. The force of the stroke knocked the key clatteringly to the floor.

Stepping back. Brice flung a second and better aimed handful of the dwindling fire in front of the re-coiling reptile. It drew back hissing. And as it did so. Gavin regained the fallen key.

Wheeling about choking and strangling from the smoke, his streamingly smarting eyes barely able to discern the fiery trail he had laid. Brice ran through the midst of the red line of embers to the door. Reaching it he held the key in one hand while the sensitive fingers of the other sought the keyhole.

After what seemed a century he found it, and applied and turned the key in the stiff lock. With a fierce shove he pushed open the door. Then as he was about to bound forth into the glory of the sunset, he started back convulsively.

One moccasin had evidently sought outer air. With this in view it had stretched itself along the crack of light at the foot of the door. Now as the door flew wide the snake coiled itself to strike at the man who had all but stepped on it.

Down whizzed the narrow strip of iron Gavin had wrenched from the box as a possible weapon. And, though the impact cut Brice’s fingers afresh, the snake lay twisting wildly and harmlessly with a cloven spine.

Over the writhing body sprang Gavin Brice and out into the sandy open, filling his smoke-tortured lungs with the fresh sunset air and blinking away the smoke-damp from his stinging eyes.

It was then he beheld running toward him three men. Far in the van was Roke–his attention no doubt having been caught by the smoke pouring through the ventilator. The two others were an undersized conch and a towering Bahama negro. All three carried clubs, and a pistol glittered in Roke’s left hand.

Ten feet from the reeling Gavin. Roke opened fire. But, as he did not halt when he pulled trigger, his shot went wild. Before he could shoot again or bring his club into action. Brice was upon him. Gavin smote once and once only with the willowy metal strip. But he struck with all the dazzling speed of a trained saber fencer.

The iron strip caught Roke across the eyes, smartingly and with a force which blinded him for the moment and sent him staggering back in keen pain. The iron strip doubled uselessly under the might of the blow, and Gavin dropped it and ran.

At top speed he set off toward the dock. The conch and the negro were between him and the pier, and from various directions other men were running. But only the Bahaman and the little conch barred his actual line of progress. Both leaped at him at the same time, as he came dashing down on them.

The conch was a yard or so in front of the negro. And now the fugitive saw the Bahaman’s supposed cudgel was an iron crowbar which he wielded as easily as a wand. The negro leaped and at the same time struck. But, by some queer chance, the conch, a yard ahead of him, lost his own footing in the shifty sand just then and tumbled headlong.

He fell directly in the Bahaman’s path. The negro stumbled over him and plunged earthward, the iron bar flying harmless from his grasp.

“Good little Davy!” apostrophized Brice, as he hurdled the sprawling bodies and made for the dock.

The way was clear, and he ran at a pace which would not have disgraced a college sprinter. Once, glancing back over his shoulder, he saw the Bahaman trying blasphemously to disentangle his legs from those of the prostrate and wriggling Davy. He saw, too, Roke pawing at his cut face with both hairy hands, and heard him bellowing confused orders which nobody seemed to understand.

Arrived at the dock Gavin saw that Standish’s launch was gone. So, too, was the gaudy little motorboat wherein Rodney Hade had come to the key. Two battered and paintless motor-scows remained, and one or two disreputable rowboats.

It was the work of only a few seconds for Brice to cut loose the moorings of all these craft and to thrust them far out into the blue water, where wind and tide could be trusted to bear them steadily farther and farther from shore.

Into the last of the boats–the speedier-seeming of the two launches–Gavin sprang as he shoved it free from the float. And, before the nearest of the island men could reach shore, he had the motor purring. Satisfied that the tide had caught the rest of the fleet and that the stiff tradewind was doing even more to send the derelict boats out of reach from shore or from possible swimmers he turned the head of his unwieldy launch toward the mainland, pointing it northeastward and making ready to wind his course through the straits which laced the various islets lying between him and his destination.

“They’ll have a sweet time getting off that key tonight,” he mused in grim satisfaction. “And, unless they can hail some passing boat, they’re due to stay there till Hade or Standish makes another trip out …. Standish!”

At the name he went hot with wrath. Now that he had achieved the task of winning free from his prison and from his jailors his mind swung back to the man he had rescued and who had sought his death. Anger at the black infamy burned fiercely in Brice’s soul. His whole brain and body ached for redress, for physical wild-beast punishment of the ingrate. The impulse dulled his every other faculty. It made him oblivious to the infinitely more important work he had laid out for himself.

No man can be forever normal when anger takes the reins. And, for the time, Gavin Brice was deaf and blind to every motive or caution, and centered his entire faculties on the yearning to punish Milo Standish. He had fought like a tiger and had risked his own life to save Standish from the unknown assailant’s knife thrust. Milo, in gross stupidity, had struck him senseless. And now, coldbloodedly, he had helped to plan for him the most terrible form of death by torture to which even an Apache could have stooped. Small wonder that righteous indignation flared high within the fugitive!

Straight into the fading glory of the sunset. Brice was steering his wallowing and leaky launch. The boat was evidently constructed and used for the transporting of fruit from the key to the mainland. She was slow and of deep draught. But she was cutting down the distance now between Gavin and the shore.

He planned to beach her on the strip of sand at the bottom of the mangrove swamp, and to make his way to the Standish house through the hidden path whose existence Milo had that day poohpoohed. He trusted to luck and to justice to enable him to find the man he sought when once he should reach the house.

His only drawback was the fear lest he encounter Claire as well. In his present wrathful frame of mind he had no wish to see or speak with her, and he hoped that she might not mar by her presence his encounter with her brother.

Between two keys wallowed his chugging boat and into a stretch of clear water beyond. Then, skirting a low-lying reef, Gavin headed direct toward the distant patch of yellowish beach which was his objective.

The sun’s upper edge was sinking below the flat skyline. Mauve shadows swept over the aquamarine expanse of rippling water. The horizon was dyed a blood-red which was merging into ashes of roses. On golden Mashta played the last level rays of the dying sun, caressing the wondrous edifice as though they loved it. The subtropical night was rushing down upon the smiling world, and, as ever, it was descending without the long sweet interval of twilight that northern lands know.

Gavin put the tub to top speed as the last visible obstacle was left behind. Clear water lay between him and the beach. And he was impatient to step on land. Under the fresh impetus the rolling craft panted and wheezed and made her way through the ripples at a really creditable pace.

As the shadows thickened Brice half-arose in his seat to get a better glimpse of a little motorboat which had just sprung into view from around the mangrove-covered headland that cut off the view of Standish’s mainland dock. The boat apparently had put off from that pier. and was making rapid speed out into the bay almost directly toward him. He could descry a figure sitting in the steersman’s seat. But by that ebbing light. he could discern only its blurred outline.

Before Gavin could resume his seat he was flung forward upon his face in the bottom of his scow. The jar of the tumble knocked him breathless. And as he scrambled up on hands and knees he saw what had happened.

Foolish is the boatman who runs at full speed in some of the southwestern reaches of Biscayne Bay–especially at dusk –without up-to-date chart or a perfect knowledge of the bay’s tricky soundings. For the coral worm is tireless, and the making of new reefs is without end.

The fast-driven launch had run, bow-on, into a tooth of coral barely ten inches under the surface of the smooth water. And, what with her impetus and the half-rotted condition of her hull, she struck with such force as to rip a hole in her forward quarter, wide enough to stick a derby hat through.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Miss Standish!” sputtered Gavin, aghast. “Miss Standish!”

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

“You’re safe? You’re not harmed?” panted the girl.

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

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

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

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

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

“Quite so,” assented Gavin, his voice as jarring as a file’s. “I did. And he decided that I shouldn’t change my mind. He–“

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

“I’m glad it could make you so happy,” he said. “The pleasure is all yours.”

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

“Are there?” interpolated Brice. “I’d hate to test that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” she said simply.

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

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

She shivered all over.

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

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

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

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

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

CHAPTER VII

SECRETS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see.”

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

“Yes.”

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

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

“His snakes?”

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

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

“How did you know?” she asked, surprised. “How in the world should a newcomer from the North know about–“

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

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

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

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

“Wait!”

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

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

“I–I don’t understand,” she faltered, bewildered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t try to talk,” she begged–as she had begged him on the night before. “Just sit back and rest.”

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

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

“What–what do you mean?” she queried. “You know about the signal?–You–?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Gavin Brice,” he said. “As I told you. But I’m also a United States Secret Service official–which I didn’t tell you.”

“No!” she stammered, shrinking back. “Oh, no!”

He continued, briskly:

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

“Here? In Florida? But–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If you think I’ll believe a word against my brother–especially from a self-confessed spy–“

“No?” said Gavin. “And you’re just as sure of Rodney Hade’s noble uprightness as of your brother’s ?”

“I’m not defending Rodney Hade,” said Claire. “He is nothing to me, one way or the other. He–“

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

“If you spied that out, too–“

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

“No!” she cried, in wrathful refusal to believe. “That is not true. It can’t be true! It is a–“

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

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

“No,” he said, without a trace of unwillingness or of bravado. “I am not. I’ll go there, with you, gladly. In the meantime–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But what–?” began the frightened girl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t think he’ll hurt me overmuch,” said he. “I thank you, just the same. It makes me very happy to know you aren’t–“

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

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

“Why? Is–?”

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

CHAPTER VIII

THE SIEGE

“Trouble?” repeated Claire, questioningly. “You mean–?”

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

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

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

“A Caesar?” queried Gavin, in real perplexity.

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

“But what–?”

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

Brice whistled, softly.

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

“Why!” cried Claire, astounded. “That’s the very thing you stopped me from telling you! If you knew, all the time–“

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

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

“Have you seen any of this treasure?” interposed Brice.

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

“And you don’t know where it was taken to?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The shortest way to the house,” called the girl, over her shoulder, “is the way I’m going now.”

“But, Miss Standish!” he protested. “Please–“

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

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

“Go indoors! Quickly, please!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Caesars?” babbled Standish. “What what ‘kiosk’ are you talking about?–I–That’s a plantation for–“

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

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

“Three canvas bags, piled–?”

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

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

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

“Y–yes,” stammered Milo, still battling with the idea of bluffing this calmly authoritative man. “Yes. They’re all right. But where you got the idea–“

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

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

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

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

“Sato!” exclaimed Claire.

The Jap paid no heed.

“Prease!” he chattered between castanet teeth. “Prease, I hear. I scare. I no fightman. I go, prease! I s-s-s-s, I–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Spy work?” echoed Standish, in real astonishment. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where does that door lead to?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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