BIG FLAT, GASTON OLAF, THE SNOW BURNER, ETC.
GROSSET & DUNLAP
BY GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1919, BY THE CURTIS PUBLISHING COMPANY
Roger Payne had come to a decision. He waited until the office door had closed behind the departing stenographer, then swung his long legs recklessly upon his flat-top desk and shouted across the room at his partner:
Tibbetts frowned. He was footing a column of cost figures and the blast from his young partner nearly made him lose count.
Payne grinned. He liked his partner. Had he not done so he would never have allowed himself to be dragged into business—Tibbetts & Payne, Manufacturers' Agents. Two years of it. Two years from the day on a Western irrigation dam when Payne had installed the cement machine that Tibbetts was selling. Two years—to Payne—of prison. And now his moment of decision had arrived.
Roger Payne was out of place. He did not fit the furniture. There was a look of permanence to the dark tan upon his face which labeled it not the surface sunburn which may be collected during a two weeks' vacation or gradually acquired by spending Saturday afternoon and Sunday on the golf links. It was a tan that suggested leather, and which comes as much from frostbite as sunburn, and from the whip of frozen snowflakes as the heated winds of summer.
Beneath the tan the face was too lean and hard to be in sympathy with the high polish of flat-top desks.
His body also was lean and hard. Even the proper cut of a carefully tailored business suit could not conceal a certain bunchiness about the shoulders which had nothing at all in common with office efficiency. The shoulders were outrageously broad, the barrel of his chest was scandalously deep, the hands distressingly large and brown, considered in intimate association with filing systems and adding machines. And the keen blue eyes, sometimes gazing with a far-away, unbusiness-like look out into the grimy, roaring canon called Wabash Avenue, sometimes twinkling with unbusinesslike mischief, inevitably completed the exposure of Roger Payne.
He did not belong there, and he knew it. Hence it was that he suddenly jerked his long legs from the desk, sat up and said swiftly:
"Jim Tibbetts, I want you to buy me out!"
Tibbetts blinked. He was bald, plump, spectacled and kindly.
"Eh? What say? Dang it, Rog, you made me lose count!"
He began all over to foot the column of cost figures. He footed from bottom to top, checked the result by footing from top to bottom, erased his light penciled figures and rewrote them in ink, laid the sheet to one side and folded his hands in resignation.
"I knew it was coming, Rog. I've seen the signs for weeks past. You've been ramping round like a man in prison. Dang it, Rog, I'm sorry."
"Jim," said Roger, "this is no business for me to be in."
"It's a good business, Roger," protested Tibbetts mildly. "There's nothing wrong with it. We've been running only two years. Look what we've done. Look at our prospects. We're pretty well off already. We'll be rich pretty soon. Why? Because Roger Payne comes pretty near being a genius with machinery and Jim Tibbetts can beat most fellows selling. It's too good to spoil, Roger."
"Two years," repeated Payne slowly. "Jim, it seems like a lifetime to me, and it doesn't seem real. The other did—bridgebuilding, irrigation, timber cruising. That was living."
"That was bumming, and you know it!" protested Tibbetts. "That was kid stuff; it was your way of sowing your wild oats. How much money did you have when it was over? How much have you got now, after only two years of business? It was time-wasting, that's what it was, and you know it."
"It was outdoors," said Payne.
They were silent for a while.
"Roger," said Tibbetts sorrowfully, "are you beginning to turn dreamer?"
"No," said Payne emphatically, "I'm waking up. I'm like a man who's been asleep for the last two years. I'm just coming out of it. I'm wide awake; and that's why I've come to see that this game and I don't belong together. You said you'd noticed me ramping round like a man in prison. That's right! Can you guess why? Well, just because of what I tell you; I've come to myself, Jim, and I've got to get out."
"Why? Why have you got to get out?"
Roger Payne shook a hard brown fist at the gray-stone walls of the other side of the clanging street.
"That's why, Jim. It's a prison—to me. Easy enough if you fit in it. I don't. So I'm going to get out; and it's got to be now."
"But why, in the name of Sam, now? You're getting old, I'll admit. Let's see, how long ago is it since I gave you that scarfpin for your twenty-seventh birthday? Twenty-seven! Come out of it, Rog. Fifty-seven is the proper age to begin dreaming about quitting business."
"I know it. That's why I'm going to do it now, before the game gets me. It gets everybody who stays in it. It would even get me. Then at fifty-seven, as you say, I might quit and go outdoors and begin to live—too late. Jim, did you ever see a more pitiful spectacle than a natural-born outdoor man who's kept his nose on a desk for thirty years and then realized his lifelong dream? Neither have I. He thinks he's going to get out and start living then, but what he does is to begin to die—from the shoulders up. No, sir!" The young man sprang to his feet, flinging the swivel chair away with a kick. "I'm not going to be trapped. I'd rather hike back to-morrow to that irrigation job out West and boss Hunkies for Higgins than sit cooped up here day after day and get rich."
"You—crazy young fool!" said Tibbetts affectionately.
"All right, Jim. Crazy, if you please. But that is what's going to happen; you're going to buy me out, or get another partner, and I"—he filled his great lungs with air—"I'm going to get outdoors."
"What're you going to do? I'll bet you don't know. Have you got any plans?"
"Yes, I'm going to get out of the city the day after I wind things up here."
"Where you going?"
"Back home to Jordan City and look the old town over, first of all."
"Jordan City! Why—why you aren't a retired farmer."
Payne laughed. "Not going to settle there, Jim."
"Oh, and after you've looked it over, what then?"
"I'll make my plans there. I don't know what it will be. But whatever it is, it will be something that won't bring me back to town."
James Tibbetts looked long and hopefully at the browned face of his young partner; but at what he saw there his hopes vanished.
"You're set on this, I see, Rog," he said sorrowfully.
"Cheer up, Jim!" responded Payne.
"I'll give you a deal that will help you get rich a lot quicker than if I stayed with you."
Tibbetts shook his head and was silent a long time. "Well, if you're bound to sell, you won't go out of here exactly busted—after two years with me," he said at last. "Rog! Do you mean it? We're going to part?"
"It would be plain hell for me to stick, Jim."
Tibbetts grasped the extended hard brown hand in his own soft white fingers. After a while he managed to stammer:
"I see. This just had to come!"
On the fat rolling lands about Jordan City pedigreed kine graze by the hundreds, corn grows high and thick and silos are to be seen in every barnyard. And in Jordan City bank accounts are large and permanent.
It is an old town, as age goes in the Mississippi Valley. Maple trees with huge, solid trunks and immense branches line its older streets. The streets themselves, save for the strip of asphalt where the state highway sweeps through the town, are largely paved with hard red bricks. In the older streets in the residence sections the sidewalks are of the same material, and in many places soft green moss grows undisturbed upon these hard red paths. Back from the little-used sidewalks of these sections, surrounded by hedges of Osage orange or box elder, stand old staid houses in good paint and repair. Rich retired owners of the fat acres of Jordan County live in most of them and own ponderous eight-cylinder cars.
There is a new section of the town, too, where the architecture runs to bungalow styles, where the installment collectors from the phonograph houses are regularly seen, and where papa gets out in front and twirls the crank when the family car goes out for its airing. No important line of demarcation separates the old staid section of town from the new and brighter one. Major Trimble, President of the Jordan Bank & Trust Company, accepts deposits from both sections with strict impartiality; the spire of the Methodist Episcopal Church is the Sunday lodestone to folk on both sides of town, as well as for much of the country round. They talk mainly of farms, of cattle and of the weather on the streets of Jordan; and the young folk largely go off to Chicago to make their way in the world.
Into this farm-ringed islet of tranquillity, where faith in one's fellowman, and hoarded money, are in abundance, about the time that Roger Payne was beginning to know that his place was not in the city, the afternoon train from the east deposited a large, dignified personage of robust, well-nourished, ministerial manner and apparel, who bore comfortably upon his well-padded shoulders the name, Isaiah Granger.
Isaiah Granger! The name alone would have been an open sesame to the important circle which made possible the prosperity of Major Tumble's bank and the First M. E. Church. But Mr. Granger had other things to recommend him. He came, quoth the Jordan Record—whose editor's notes Major Trimble held—to make his home in that most beautiful of towns, Jordan City. He was an old friend of Major Tumble's. Mr. Granger was "well fixed"—Major Trimble gave his word for that.
Hence Mr. Granger was met at the station by Major Trimble, driven in the Major's ponderous car to his home and there introduced to Mrs. Trimble—strange that being so old a friend of the Major's he should not have met Mrs. Trimble before—and then in the seclusion of the Major's library he had shucked his coat, as it were, and said:
"Well, what's the prospects for a killing? Got any of 'em lined up?"
"First," retorted Major Trimble, stroking his knife-edged nose, "let me see your credentials from Senator Fairclothe."
The visitor smiled and passed over the requested credentials. Major Trimble inspected them as an astute banker should.
"All right," he said, and waited.
Mr. Granger passed over a bank draft.
"All right," repeated the banker, "and ten percent on all sales made here or through connections from here."
"Ten per cent," agreed Granger, "and no responsibility to be attached to you."
"I'll take care of that," snapped Trimble, "Now, Granger, I think you ought to do some real business here."
And Granger did.
Long before Roger Payne had sold his share in his business, Isaiah Granger was leading the choir in the First M. E. Church and Mrs. Granger, a lady of girth and charm, was President of the Jordan Beautiful Society. Their position in Jordan was solid and assured. Long before Roger finally escaped from the large city, Isaiah Granger, and therefore Jordan, had been most significantly honored.
Granger had been appointed by United States Senator Lafayette Fairclothe, in a letter written on Senate stationery, as district manager for that great organization, The Prairie Highlands Association, Senator Fairclothe, President, Washington, D. C.—which, under the encouragement of the Government, was bestowing a boon on a land-hungry nation of developing the fabulously rich prairie lands of the Western Everglades, Florida. Long before the afternoon when Roger swung boyishly off the train at Jordan, Isaiah Granger's fellow townsmen, led by Major Trimble, had become insistent in their demands that he give them first chance at that land right there in Jordan—a demand which Granger had admitted to be entirely just.
It was Major Trimble, as an old family friend, who hinted to Roger about the snap that Brother Granger was letting his fellow citizens in on in Florida land. It was Senator Fairclothe's direct, sincere replies to Roger's letters of inquiry that convinced him. There is magic in the words "United States Senator." But after all, it was the spirit of adventure, the love of outdoors, the instinct of the pioneer, which prompted him to buy a 1000-acre block of "prairie highland," at the headwaters of the Chokohatchee River. It was necessary to buy at once, for Trimble was after that tract for himself. Having made the purchase Payne sent a wire to the Far West asking one Higgins, engineer, if he were open for a job. And then Roger Payne turned his eager eyes toward sunny Southern Florida.
A flaring ray of purple sun came flashing over the sea to Gumbo Key, a warning of the brazen subtropical dawn that was to come. It pierced a vista in the jungle of coco palms on the narrow key, colored purple the white side of the Paradise Gardens Colony excursion boat Swastika, which lay at the tiny wharf on the key's western shore, and splashed without warning into an open porthole well aft.
Roger Payne awoke with a start. It was his first experience with the shock of a Southern Florida dawn. Dawns of many sorts he had seen—the ghastly ashy, clanging dawns of cities, the gray, creeping dawns of Northern winter, the bluish dawns of the Western mountains—but a dawn which came flaring up from the sea like a clap of thunder was a novelty.
He lay for a moment, stretching his buoyant body on the shelflike berth, his soles firmly against one wall, his head touching another, and wondered how a man could sleep in that bunk who was over six feet one. The Swastika had come from the railroad terminus at Flora City during the night, laden with small land buyers bound up the Chokohatchee River for the Paradise Gardens Colony, and had laid up at Gumbo Key at the mouth of the river to wait for daylight. Payne had secured passage upon it, bound for his prairie land beyond the head waters of the Chokohatchee. As he realized that dawn was coming and that soon he would see his land, he tumbled from his berth with something of the eagerness of a boy on the first day of the long vacation.
"Come on, Hig; daylight's coming."
Higgins, the other man in the room, stirred grudgingly. He was young in years but old in the ways of men, hardened by many hard jobs in rough corners of the world, and broad of body and round and red of head.
"Like the sunrise, do you?" grumbled Higgins. "Go ahead; soak your soul in it. My soul don't need soaking, so lemme sleep. Or, here; mebbe you're out early for a glimpse at the young lady who kept to her room all last evening?"
"I scarcely noticed her."
"You're right; you didn't. That's why I been wondering if there ain't something wrong with you. Tall, slim, carried herself like a princess, and dressed——"
"Go back to sleep, Hig, you're still dreaming."
"A dream is right—but in the flesh—and you never noticed her!"
"I'm down here on business; haven't time for anything else. I'm going out and see what the country is like."
"Go ahead. By the purple shadows I can tell you that in a few minutes 'twill be sunrise, and all gaudier than a campmeeter's picture of heaven. So I'll just roll over and tear off ten winks more."
Out on the narrow wharf Payne caught his foot on the painter of a rowboat moored near the Swastika's stern, and found the soft blue haze of the subtropical night still undisturbed save for the first ray of dawn.
The tree growth on the key was jungle-like in density. A path had been cut through to the eastern shore. It was almost a tunnel, for the fronds of the coco palms and the branches of the red-trunked gumbo limbo, and of live oak formed an arch overhead, from which hung long, listless streamers of Spanish moss. The red rays touched the hanging tips of the moss, as if the streamers had been dipped in vermilion, and it tinted softly the palm fronds, wet with the night's dew.
Payne walked down the path to the east shore of the key, and suddenly he seemed to behold a world being born anew. Dawn was coming with a rush. The soft velvety blackness of night in the heavens was giving way to a faint purple. Up from the mystic spaces of the east rays of deep purple, of burnt umber, vermilion, scarlet and flame were leaping into the sky. Black dots began to appear on the horizon, keys and trees silhouetted against the rising light. A huge heron flapped grotesquely up from the top of a mangrove bush as the sun struck it; a flamingo flapped by, matching its dainty pink with the sun's best tints; a dolphin's fin broke the dark purple water near shore.
Then the eastern horizon became a flare of flame and fire, and the sea grew rosy. Beyond its brim a great conflagration seemed to be raging, throwing its flames of gold, of red and of uncountable tints high into the sky. Higher it rose, its rays more insistent; and then, as with a clashing of brazen cymbals, the full-blown dawn was upon the world.
Payne now saw that the light had revealed two yachts moored to a short pier which ran out from the eastern shore. One, a splendid sixty-foot cruiser of the luxurious type seen in Florida waters during the tourist season, lay at the end of the pier ready to sail. From bow to stern she was immaculate white with shiny brown trimmings, and on her bow the sun revealed in small gilt letters the name Egret.
The second boat was a low, dirty forty-footer—the Cormorant—the boat to which the Swastika's passengers were to transfer for the trip up the river.
A Japanese steward, in spick and span whites, came down the Egret's shiny gangway, entered the path leading to the Swastika's dock, and in a few minutes came hurrying back to his boat carrying a handbag.
The sun now had splashed boldly upon the languid wet fronds of the palms, upon the trunks of trees and the hanging moss. It lighted up the tunnellike vista, painting rosy the shell path underfoot and revealing the Swastika beyond. In the morning stillness Payne heard light, swift steps creaking crisply upon the crushed shells of the path. Then, from his place in the shadows beneath a palm, he saw the girl. She came to the open space before the sea, whistling softly to herself an irrepressible, tuneless matin song of youth, and thus she walked unexpectingly into the full power of the relentless dawn. For a moment she halted, blinking, astounded.
Her exclamation was a cry of the joy of youth. She stood facing the coming day, and the sea and sun; and a puff of morning breeze flung behind her a vagrant strand of golden hair.
She was quite tall, and upon her young figure, long of waist and lithe, yet well-rounded, the thin white dress of the subtropics was but a filament, a feminine accessory to the virgin beauty and the message of her budding womanhood.
Payne heard a soft, heavy step at his back and saw that Higgins, too, had answered the call of dawn.
The girl stood entranced by the spectacle before her. She placed her hands upon her bosom and stood with uplifted visage, like a young goddess of the dawn. She stretched her arms passionately out over the sea and said quite loudly and fervently:
"I love you, I love you!"
In the shadow of the palm Payne and Higgins began to retreat guiltily.
"No use your sticking round, Payne," whispered the engineer. "You're too late; she's took. You heard what she said."
"I love you," repeated the girl with the same ecstatic tone and pose. "Ah! How I love you!"
From the arch over the path there dropped with a swish and crash the ten-foot branch of a coco palm, falling without warning or apparent reason, as the overripe branches of coco palms do fall. The girl whirled round; and Payne was shocked and chilled to the marrow by the sight of her as she faced toward them.
Beautiful she was, her face as beautiful as her vibrant young body, but for the moment she was like a thing at bay. Fear shown in her eyes, not the passing fear of a sudden alarm, but a deep-seated, wearing fear suddenly awakened. Her face was a deadly white. For an instant it seemed to Roger that the depths of her soul were revealed, and at the mystery and dread in her eyes he took a step forward. He did not speak. Her expression baffled him. He stood irresolute for the moment, and in that moment she recovered her poise. She drew herself upright slowly, the red came flowing back into the cream of her cheeks, and she relaxed, leaning her weight upon one foot. As she looked at Roger, and from him to the weather-beaten Higgins and back to Roger, her eyes grew easy with assurance.
She began to smile.
"Didn't know there were tigers or other dangerous beasts on this island, miss," chuckled Higgins. "Say the word and we'll clean 'em out for you."
Neither the girl nor Payne appeared to hear. Payne looked at her without attempting to speak; he had tried to smile and carry the thing off easily, but as their eyes met his lips remained half parted without uttering a word. He looked at her in utter helplessness, caught for the moment, at least, in the grip of a force greater than himself. The girl shot Higgins a smile of understanding and friendliness, but as her eyes came back to Roger's the smile vanished by degrees; and upon her visage for the while was the same look of awesome seriousness as was upon the young man's.
"Mebbe they're gorillas, miss," chuckled Higgins.
She turned, reluctant yet relieved at the release from the tension, and looked at him speculatively.
"Why did you say that?" she asked.
"Gorillas, miss? Pshaw! Don't be afraid; I juggle them for morning exercise. Eh? What?" he continued, as he realized that her expression was not one of jesting. "By the great smoked fish—excuse me for cussin', miss—if it wasn't ridiculous I'd say I'd hit it!"
"Do you know anything about this place?" she asked quietly.
"Not a thing, miss."
"Or about the people round here?"
"It was strange," she said, "your saying 'tiger' and 'gorilla' just then. It was what I would have said—if I could have spoken."
"I am sorry, very sorry we alarmed you," said Roger. "We didn't want to intrude."
"Oh, I am glad you were here," she cried. "You don't know how glad I was to turn round and see you two instead of——"
"Instead of tigers and gorillas?" laughed Roger. "Oh! I beg your pardon!" he cried in swift contrition at the look which the words brought back to her eyes. "I wouldn't for the world—but, surely—it's impossible; there are no dangerous wild animals on this pretty little key."
"No," she said slowly, looking away from him. "No, there are not any dangerous—wild beasts on this key. It—it was just a morning nightmare." She laughed, looking up. "Perhaps I wasn't thoroughly awake yet." But she shuddered, and swiftly made pretense she was shaking herself. "There; I'm awake now. There are no dangerous wild animals here. There are only—people. It—it was just—just moonshine."
"Do they make a little of it round here, miss?" Higgins winked eagerly and with such energy that his ears and hat moved.
"Oh, Higgins!" groaned Roger; but the girl threw back her head and laughed with relief and gratitude for the chance of merriment until the virgin morning seemed filled with song. Higgins' hair-trigger laughter rumbled deep accompaniment; and, as always, the engineer's merriment forced itself upon Roger, and he joined in, while the silver of the girl's tones pealed above both, tinkling in the sun-kissed palms above, rolling out over the purple water, out to the mooring of the immaculate Egret.
"We were on the Swastika, and rose early," explained Roger.
"You're land buyers?"
"Yes, I've invested in a big tract way up the river."
"You're going up to-day?"
"Then—are you going right back after seeing your land—like the others?"
"I plan to develop that land—if it is anything like what it was represented."
Her manner changed. She grew thoughtful.
"Whom did you buy your land from—if it isn't too impertinent?"
"From Senator Fairclothe's company."
"From Senator——! Why, that's——" she stopped.
"Tell me, please; how was that land represented?"
"Prairie land. Soil reports and surveys were furnished. I discounted them fifty per cent, and still thought it a good investment."
"Did the fact that—Senator Fairclothe recommended the land influence you?"
"Why, certainly. He's a United States Senator."
She turned swiftly toward the Egret, but not swiftly enough to hide the flush that rushed to her cheeks.
"I hope—I do hope you are not disappointed," she said.
Her laughter of a moment before, penetrating to the cabin of the Egret, had brought a tall, thin woman, the sun glinting on the diamond pendants in her ears, out from a stateroom forward.
"Ah, my dear Annette!"
"Aunty! You awake so early?"
"The climate has made me young. Come aboard, dear. We sail at once."
The girl hesitated. Her tone was indefinable as she asked: "Is—Mr. Garman——?"
"He's up at his place, and his boat is at our disposal. Come, dear; come inside. The mornings are damp in spite of their gorgeous beauty."
The girl looked back at Payne from the door of the stateroom. One glance. He tried in vain to fathom it. Then she disappeared.
A few minutes later the Egret's softly purring engines were edging her away from the pier, when:
"Cormorant, ahoy!" called a man from her engine room.
"Hey?" responded a gruff voice from a shack on shore.
"Got that extra drum of gasoline there?"
"Bring it up on the Cormorant when you come."
The Egret was well away from shore now. Her sharp white bow cleaved the blue water of the way with slow, irresistible power. Her speed increased. In a few minutes twin waves of blue were curling away from her cutwater as, smoothly and swiftly, she raced across the bay and out of sight round the first bend of the wide mouthed Chokohatchee River.
Roger Payne stood looking up the river long after the boat was out of sight. He was in a daze; but he was very glad that he, too, was going up the river.
Aboard the broad-beamed Swastika life was beginning to stir. The odors of cooking food from her galley spread briskly upon the virgin morning air. Shoes clattered upon the deck; a chatter of voices developed. The score or more of land-seekers aboard were awake and preparing early for the great day upon which they should behold their promised land.
Up with the earliest of them, rosy, clean shaved, soberly and richly dressed and ministerial in dignity, was Granger, the agent, the expert leader of this confiding flock.
Fate had created Granger for a fisher of men; greed had sent him into the South Florida land business. His bland self-possession, his impressive physique, his confidence-winning voice and bearing constituted a profitable stock in trade. In the slang of his craft—shall we say "graft"?—he "played the church game strong." Under the sway of his hypnotic personality God-fearing, bank-fearing old couples brought forth hidden wealth to place in his dexterous hands; school-teachers wrecked their savings to invest with Granger. And Granger turned the receipts over to the great masters of his company, minus his large commission. Granger was only one tentacle of the company, one machine for extracting money from naive, land-hungry citizens. The powerful, cunning men—or man—behind it had many machines.
Senator Lafayette Fairclothe was the most expensive of these machines. It had cost much money and political trading to get his name on the Company's literature, but it was worth more.
"The future in this country belongs to the producer; I recommend this investment to my fellow citizens. Lafayette Fairclothe, United States Senator."
It was worth millions. For this was in the heyday of the Florida land boom; and the Paradise Gardens Colony, a branch of the Prairie Highlands Association, was one of the organizations that made history in Florida—a history that stank to high heaven, and even to Washington, to accomplish which, experience has taught us, requires a stench of vast and penetrating proportions indeed.
Granger had gathered his flock from afar, none nearer than a thousand miles away from Florida's subtropics.
It was a varied throng which gathered in the Swastika's saloon for an early breakfast. They were earnest, serious, land seekers, not tourists. In the main they were goodly folks worn by a monotony of life; men who had worked and women who had saved through long, gray years, buoyed up by the hope of a comfortable haven in old age to compensate them for a lifetime on the treadmill. Some of them were farmers, some small-towners, two or three were from cities; and the spell of dreams, and of Granger, was upon them all. They were dazzled, dazed. On their native heaths, perhaps as shrewd as any, here they were pleased, hopeful children in a master's hands. Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth, a plot of land in perpetual sun, where crops grow without work or worry, big land profits, easy money, something for nothing—the lure is as innate and potent as the eternal lure of gold!
At breakfast the rumor began to spread somehow that something had happened, and the trip up the river to the colony would have to be delayed a few hours. Then it was rumored that the delay would be a day, two days; it was dangerous to go upstream; it was impossible. It was doubtful if the trip could be made for a long time.
Granger was very busy and concerned, flying about the boat, off it and on again; his brow wrinkled, his lips compressed with determination.
"Anything gone wrong, Mr. Granger?"
"Nothing to speak of, brother. I'll get it straightened out. Do not worry, brother."
"Ain't worryin' 'tall, long's you're in charge, Mr. Granger."
The women on board began to feel sorry for Mr. Granger, the way he was rushing and worrying about for them.
"Yes, Granger's all right. He'll do the best any one can by us."
More and more Granger rushed; more and more his countenance became marked with the lines of deep concern. He was heard the length of the boat in protest to some news imparted by the captain.
"But I tell you we must go up to-day, Captain Sayles. Do you think I will disappoint these good friends of mine? I have a reputation to sustain; I have never broken my word in my life; and I've promised to pilot these good friends to our Colony to-day."
"Can't be done, Mr. Granger. Dangerous. Don't want to wreck and drown your people, do you?" The captain raised his voice. "The government inspectors have closed the river for a week."
The news spread over the Swastika. But Granger was not one to give in even to such a diction. He rushed about some more. One of the women thought she saw him enter his stateroom for a moment of prayer. All of no avail. Even Granger had to submit; and in the end, with apparent reluctance, he assembled his flock in the saloon.
"Folks—neighbors—good friends all, I am sorry." Mr. Granger cast a glance about him which was like a benediction in spite of his doleful words. "We have come to our promised land too soon; we cannot go up the river and inspect our glorious properties for another week. The river is closed by government orders. The colossal improvements by which the Paradise Gardens Colony is transforming the wilderness into a veritable paradise for us all have interfered slightly with our program.
"Only a few miles up the river the Colony is constructing an enormous bridge to carry the rail which is pushing swiftly on its way toward the Colony and which, as we all know, will increase the value of our properties by such leaps and bounds that each and all of us shall reap a harvest of wealth. We who are in on the ground floor will sell at our own price when the rush comes; where we invested hundreds we will sell for thousands. The construction of this great bridge entails enormous engineering feats and for the present the river is blocked. Entirely blocked. Blocked so that not even a Seminole Indian could pole his picturesque dugout from here to the magnificently fertile lands of the Colony.
"We had no way of knowing this would happen. Nevertheless, the Colony will transfer its members free of charge back to Flora City; and one week from to-day we will resume our trip up the beautiful Chokohatchee to the Paradise Colony. Let us not grieve too much, good friends, over the slight delay. 'What doth it profit a man if he gain the world and lose his soul.' A week at beautiful, tropical Flora City! A week in which to feast our souls on the enchantment of Southern Florida! Friends, I think we may congratulate ourselves; and we start back in fifteen minutes."
"The grub's so damn bad at that Flora Hotel," snapped a weazened old man. "I'm poisoned yet by some of that beef I et. Tougher'n hell it was."
"Mister Perkins, sir! I must ask you to refrain from the use of profanity. The spirit of the Colony, of its members——"
"Well, I should say so!" said Mrs. Perkins. "Swearin' and rarin' round after all Mr. Granger's done for us! I declare I'm 'shamed to take you along, Tom Perkins."
"Have you no soul or eyes for the higher things, Mr. Perkins?" inquired a large, black-clad lady reprovingly. "With all this beauty about us, and the inspirin' scenery, I should think——"
"Well, that's all right, Mrs. Caine, what you think," interrupted Mrs. Perkins sharply. "You do your thinking for your husband and I'll do the thinking for mine; and I guess if you do that you won't have to fill in your time meddling with others."
"Well! Well, I never——"
"Ladies!" murmured Granger. "Let us not allow this little inconvenience which we have experienced to disturb our equanimity."
"Let's have that agin," growled a fat gentleman. "You say we can't get up the river, hey? Well, what's the matter with driving up?"
"The magnificent oiled highway which is going to bring thousands of visitors to our Colony has not quite been built down to the mouth of the river here."
"All right. We'll walk up to where she begins. Ain't no cripples aboard, far's I can see."
"The one bad piece of land in the district unfortunately lies between the mouth of the river. It is a small swamp—only a small one—then the fair uplands of our Colony begin. But until the road is built across it the river is the only means of travel inland and that, as I sorrowfully tell you, is blocked. Come; let us forget our business, our future wealth, for the time being and revel in the subtropical joys at Flora City. The land will remain. Each day sees an increase in its value. Good friends, we're getting ready to sail. All aboard for beautiful Flora City."
"Slick enough!" chuckled Higgins, where he and Payne were standing in the background. "I'll say he does it well. Now let's step up there and tell him how many kinds of a liar he is."
"Hold on," muttered Roger. "I'm here to get some business done; I'm here to get up the river and see that land."
"This boat isn't going up, there's no question of that; calling him a liar wouldn't send the boat upstream."
"Not an inch."
"And it would warn them that we were onto the fact that boats can go up, and that we intend to go."
"Oh, you intend to go, do you? How, for instance?"
"That tub, the Cormorant, is going up. I don't know when, but that's where she's bound. I'm going on her."
Higgins made no reply.
"You don't want to tackle it, I see."
"No, you don't see anything of the sort," retorted Higgins. "I'm going with you all right; I've made up my mind to that. I was just trying to figure how we are going to work it. You're right; if we tell 'em we're staying here, the Cormorant won't go up. There's something slick going on round here so we've got to be slickers ourselves. We've got to sneak on 'em."
"Sneak? What for? I've got a right to go up and look at the land I've paid money on."
"Sure, so has that flock of suckers on the boat; but you don't see them going, do you?"
"I wonder if the whole crowd demanded to be taken up——?"
"Pooh! They're sheep and Granger's got them hypnotized. You say one word against the Colony and you'd be an outcast among 'em. No; we've got to let them go."
"And we've got to pretend to go along to Flora City," he added. "I don't like to sneak. It goes against my grain; but business is business. Come on, Higgins. Next trip in a week, Mr. Granger? Good enough. We're going to our stateroom and catch up some sleep. Wake us at peril of your life."
He led the way swiftly to the stateroom, grasped his bag and Higgins', locked the door and hurried aft out of sight of the people gathered forward.
"Come on," he whispered throwing a leg over the railing.
Higgins, peering after him, saw the young man untying the rowboat which was fastened to the dock beneath the Swastika's stern.
"You certainly see a lot of things and work fast, when you get a-going," whispered the engineer as he let himself down into the boat. "Now where to?"
"Just round that bunch of mangroves and out of sight of the Swastika's decks. Grab that oar and paddle. Easy—but work fast!"
A minute or two of swift anxious paddling and they had whisked the boat down the shore, round the mangrove promontory into the seclusion of a tiny bay. And then:
"Hell!" said Higgins.
A clean-cut, solidly built man in a suit of greasy overalls was standing on the shore of the bay, looking steadily up at the reddened sky. Payne followed the direction of the man's gaze. Up against the multi-hued red of the morning was a gently undulating streak of dazzlingly snowy white. Roger had often seen white of the purest sort in the untracked snows of northern forests, but never a white so pure, so soft, so warm as this. And then he saw by the undulations of the streak that it was a flock of long, graceful birds moving in single file from west to east. Shimmering in the brassy dawn sun, they rode like dream birds upon a vermilion sea, their slow movements so graceful, so rhythmic as seemingly to represent no effort, as if the birds merely floated along, their beauty and grace the ultimate expression of the spirit of the scene. They flew with their delicate necks bent back upon their bodies, as swans afloat upon still water, their long legs held motionless and straight behind; yet they moved rapidly, moved steadily and to a definite goal some place eastward up the river.
"Beautiful! A dream worth the trip alone!"
To Roger's amazement the man in overalls started at the words with something like alarm in his expression; but as his shrewd blue eyes took them in they showed relief.
"What are they?" asked Roger.
The man's expression took upon itself a mask of disinterest, almost sullenness.
"What you talking about?"
"Those birds up there?"
"Didn't see any birds. Looking to see if it would rain."
"Well, look now. What are they?"
The man refused to look.
"Donno. Donno anything about birds."
Payne looked at him closely and was puzzled. The man's obvious appearance of intelligence rendered such a reply unnatural.
The stranger returned the scrutiny, appraising the pair with a lazy air of indifference, which did not quite conceal his shrewdness.
"What you-all doing here? Fishing?"
"Come on the Swastika?"
"Yes; that's why we're hiding. We're not going back on her." Roger's eyes had not left the man's. Each had appraised the other and given a favorable verdict. "We're going up the river. I've got some land I've got to look at up there."
"How d'you figure to go?"
"On the Cormorant; we know she's going up. We're going on her—by force, if necessary."
"I'm engineer on the Cormorant."
"Well, your clothes'll 'bout fit me. Maybe she's going to have a new engineer."
They laughed together.
"Buddy," said Higgins suddenly, "you don't belong down here, do you?"
The engineer did not reply.
"I see you don't. And we ain't crackers either."
"I see that. Where is your land?"
"At the head of the river. Prairie land."
"What? In Garman's—— Who did you do business with?"
"The Prairie Highlands outfit—Senator Fairclothe is its president. Do you run up there?"
"No. It's bad enough to get up to what they call the Colony; never been there myself," said the stranger, "but you're beyond that. We don't go there ourselves."
"How far up do you go?"
"To what's on the maps as the Colony. Get there at about noon."
"My land is Sections 16 and 17."
"That prairie tract is beyond the headwaters. Do you know this country—anything about the people, and so on?"
"All I know is that I've got some money invested in some land up the river and I'm going up to have a look at it."
The stranger had made up his mind. He looked round to make sure he was not observed or overheard.
"There's a little cabin on the foredeck of the Cormorant," he said. "It isn't used nowadays. Nobody on board. Move fast."
He wheeled and was gone.
Payne and Higgins slipped swiftly through the jungle to the farther side of the key where the Cormorant lay moored. A rush into the water and they were on the starboard side of the boat and hidden from the shore. In another moment they were over the low rail onto the deck and crawling into the lower cabin and forward beneath the wheelhouse.
"Whew!" Higgins sniffed at the strange odor that greeted them. "What is it—arsenic?"
"Shut the door. Good! Things are working fine."
"It's a darn funny way to go looking at land."
"But it's a way, and that's what we're after."
"Smells like a morgue in here."
With his eyes at a crack in the door Roger saw the crew coming aboard. The engineer was in the lead; behind him came the captain, a tall man of vicious appearance, and a half-naked mulatto deckhand.
"Hard eggs, those two; that engineer doesn't belong in their company."
"Nope; he doesn't belong here at all," whispered Higgins. "He tries to look the part and doesn't quite make it. Wonder what his game is?"
"There goes the Swastika."
A sharp whistle announced the departure of the larger boat. Presently there came floating over the water, over the key, the quaint, plaintive sound of untrained voices enthusiastically raised in song. Roger smiled grimly as he pressed his ear to the crack and caught the faint words:
"Shall we gather at the river? The beautiful, the beautiful river——"
Granger's voice was distinguished above the rest; he was on the job; he was leading his shorn flock back from the gates of Paradise to the tune of a hymn. At Flora City, Granger, being through with this flock, would quit it; and ere its members, obstructed time after time in their efforts to reach the Colony, would disperse, Granger, in a new field, would be laying his snares for fresh victims.
In a few minutes the hull of the Cormorant began to throb with the drive of her powerful engines. With no word of command she slid silently away from her mooring to the deep channel and began to drive her way upstream at a speed that caused Roger and Higgins to look at one another. The captain was in the wheelhouse above their heads, the mulatto lounged on the deck near the cabin door; so they did not even dare to whisper, but each knew the question the other would ask: Why such terrific speed in a dirty craft like the Cormorant?
Through his precarious peekhole Payne caught glimpses of the water and land that the Cormorant was leaving behind her. At first there was little to see save blue water, for the mouth of the Chokohatchee was more an estuary of the sea than a river. Far away on either side were the low-growing tangled growths of mangrove which represented the river's banks near the sea, and toward these banks, from both sides of the wake, water birds could be seen winging their way, frightened from their feeding ground by the Cormorant's rush. Great, clumsy pelicans rose painfully and flew with surprising speed, once they were in the air; small blue herons went shoreward in uncountable flocks, flying high into the morning sun. Close to the water, ducks of many kinds clove the air with business-like intent and speed.
The water itself seemed alive with an abundance of life. The black back of a porpoise showed above the surface; far away the sun glinted on the silver scales of a leaping tarpon. The red sides of a mangrove snapper were seen as it tried in vain to escape the jaws of a steel-gray barracuda, and a moment later half of the slim barracuda flew into the air as the jaws of a shark, catching it in full flight, snapped it in two.
The course of the Cormorant was shifted slightly, and by the muddy color of the water Payne knew they were entering the river proper. The stream here was perhaps two hundred yards across and over the stern, to port and starboard, the banks were plainly visible. The land was low, so low that it seemed but a little higher than the water level, but it bore an amazingly abundant growth. The river seemed to flow through a channel cut in the dense, solid vegetation. Great cypress trees towered up from the water, enormously thick at the roots and rapidly dwindling above. Between their rough trunks cypress scrub, sturdy cabbage palms, mangrove, custard apple and other varieties of tropical trees found space to grow; and between the trunks of the smaller trees was a tangle of palmetto, saw grass, jungle vine, Virginia creeper and the beautiful moon vine and its dainty flowers. Blue, yellow and red flowers peeped from the tangle. Air plants bearing in their hearts scarlet orchids clung to the trunks of hoary live oak, and the Spanish moss, fragile, listless, drooping, hung like delicate drapery over all.
The stream grew narrower and the turtles upon the shore became visible. A water turkey, though the boat was past, fell clumsily off its perch into the water and after frantic efforts flopped away. Alligators lay here and there along the banks; and a wild hog plowed about in the matted water-hyacinths, unconcernedly seeking food, not alarmed by the alligators or the boat or by the fierce brown Mexican buzzards—the killing variety—which contemplated him from the dead cypress branches above.
For two hours the Cormorant drove upstream without missing a stroke of her engines. Then the speed was diminished. Through the crack in the door Payne caught glimpses which showed that the stream had narrowed suddenly and began to wind. In another hour the captain shouted back an order. The engineer's head popped up from the engine pit near the stern, his expression indicating that the order had taken him by surprise.
"What'd you say, cap? Stop at Mangrove Point?"
"Yep. Boss' orders."
The engineer disappeared in the pit and the boat began to slow down as its course was altered to bring it in shore. Presently leaves brushed against its side and the craft came to a dead stop.
The mangrove branches on the bank were pushed aside, revealing a creek, and a long Seminole dugout, bearing two rough-looking men, slipped like a snake out of the jungle and up to the Cormorant's bow. The two men vaulted easily over the low rail onto the deck.
"Where is he?" asked the hideously scarred leader. "The boss said we should take him to Palm Island and leave him tied."
"My way would be to knock 'im in the head an' sink him in an alligator hole," grumbled the captain. "He's hard as nails; he'll be hard to get tied."
"You're too lazy to live. Call 'im out; we want to be going."
The speaker and his companion took up a position on the port rail; the captain and the mulatto lounged to starboard.
"Oh, Davis," called the captain, drawing a revolver. "Give us a hand here, will you?"
Davis emerged from the engine room, wiping his hands on a wisp of waste, saw by the eyes of the four men that he was trapped, and looked steadily at the captain.
"What's the idea, cap?"
"Stick up them hands!"
"What is it, I say?"
"Guess you know. You wanted to get into the swamp with us, did you, you damn snooper? Well, you're going in there—to stay."
The scarred man thrust forward a noosed rope.
"Put your hands in that, you damn snooper."
"Put 'em in," growled the captain, "or I'll shoot your ears off."
Davis made a pretense of obeying, caught the rope holder about the middle and rushed him at the captain. So swift and skillful was his move that ere the lethargic captain could move he found himself pinned against the rail. With one hand Davis flung his human shield aside while the other leaped up and caught the captain's gun hand. His disengaged hand slipped inside his shirt; and then two men leaped like wolves upon his back.
"He's got a gun on him! Look out!"
The mulatto's thick arm was about Davis' throat, dragging him back, yet he managed to give the captain's wrist a sharp twist which flung the revolver high in the air to drop with a splash into the river ere he fell in a tangle with his assailants to the deck.
"Look out! He's strong's a bear! He's got a gun! Kick his head, somebody! Kick his head!"
In their little coop forward, from which they saw it all, Payne looked at Higgins. Higgins returned the look.
"He's a white man against four."
"Come on, Hig!"
With a kick Payne sent the door flying and crawled out on deck.
The captain saw him and sprang for an ax. Roger caught him in a leap, flung him aside and threw the ax overboard.
Higgins kicked, struck and pulled at the pile on Davis and saved him from being kicked unconscious or killed, and suddenly found himself on the deck with the pile on top of him. Payne came to his rescue. A few seconds of rough work and they were up on their feet, fighting furiously.
"Look! He's getting away!" The captain pointed at Davis who, in the melee, had leaped overboard and was in the canoe pushing his way into the jungle.
"Quitting?" demanded Payne.
"Got to. Explain later."
The mangrove branches closed behind him and he was gone. Roger turned to face the captain, who was furious.
"How'd you get on this boat?"
"Who be ye?"
"Get off this boat."
"Go to hell."
A long curved knife appeared in the captain's hand; and the crew behind him smiled in horrible anticipation. He came crouching sideways toward Payne, the knife held point forward ready for the spring and upward thrust, which, with the body weight behind it, would drive the long blade through a possible arm guard and deep into the abdomen. Roger's back was against the rail and he could not retreat. He heard Higgins ask a question, but he did not turn his head. His thumbs hooked easily in his belt, his eyes held steadily on the captain's, he waited, his body apparently frozen with fright. In reality he was seething with purpose and ready to function at the right moment, his eyes betraying no vestige of his intentions. Suddenly his left foot shot out and upward with incredible swiftness. The captain's knife hand flew up to save itself, and ere it came down Roger, moving forward with the kick, had swung his right fist like a thunderbolt to its mark beneath the captain's heart.
The thud of the blow was followed by a moment of complete silence, of complete inaction. The crew behind the captain stood still, staring and frozen with consternation. The captain stood slightly stooped over, his knees bent, mouth open, gasping for air, his eyes popping. Slowly, brutishly he began to wilt and topple forward. He was almost bent double before he fell; and with the thud of his body upon the deck, one of the crew groaned: "Killed by a fist blow, by God!"
"Killed nothing," retorted Higgins. "He's just got the wind belted out of him good and plenty. But somebody will get killed sure 'nough if you bad men try any more knife tricks."
"You damn fool!" muttered the scarred man to his companion. "You left that rifle in the canoe."
"They's only two of 'em; let's get 'em."
At that instant the captain moaned painfully.
"Anybody else want the same dose?" asked Higgins.
He and Payne stood poised on the balls of their feet, their fists swinging, ready to hurl themselves forward to meet the expected rush. The captain moaned again. The rush did not materialize.
"That's right," said Roger. "We've got no quarrel with you fellows."
"Who are you?"
"I told you—land buyers."
"What'd you butt in for?"
"Four on one, and you were kicking at him at that."
"Any business of yours?"
"We made it so. The next move is up to you."
"Licker!" groaned the captain. "Gimme drink—I'm dying."
One of the men made a movement toward his left hip pocket, but halted guiltily.
"Ain't got no licker."
"Go ahead; give him some!" chuckled Higgins. "We aren't revenue men."
The man finally produced a bottle of colorless stuff, a stiff drink of which brought the captain to his knees. A second drink and he was able to rise to his feet.
"Moonshine, by the great smoked fish!" laughed Higgins. "Two snorts of it and the dead walk!"
The captain leaned weakly against the rail.
"Where'm I hit?"
"Just above the belt."
"Who—who shot me?"
"You're not shot at all, captain," interposed Payne. "You looked so wicked with that knife, I just happened to tap you in a vital spot, that's all."
"Wal—I ain't shot, sure 'nough!" exclaimed the relieved captain after inspecting his mid-section. "What'd he hit me with, boys?"
Roger held up his hard brown fist.
"Sorry to do it, friend, but a man with a knife makes me see red."
The scarred man spoke up: "If you're sheriff's men, and if you think we're going back with you——"
"I've told you we're just ordinary land buyers, going up to look at a tract beyond the river."
"Know that snooper, Davis?"
"No, we took his part because you fellows were jumping him."
"Know anything about him—what his business is?"
"No; and don't care. The only business I'm interested in just now is getting up the river."
"You can't go on this boat."
"So we were told down at the Key."
The captain consulted with the other three men.
"You got to get off here. We're going up to—to where you can't go. We'll send an Indian down here to paddle you back to Gumbo Key. Get off the boat!"
"Easy!" Roger was rapidly losing patience. "Don't try it again."
"Get off this boat, I'm telling you."
Higgins nudged Roger.
"I've got old Betsy under my arm," he suggested.
"Then line 'em up and hold 'em here," exploded the young man. "Let's quit fooling. I'll start the engine. You make one of them take the wheel. They can't keep me from seeing that land now."
Old Betsy, large and ancient, black and rusty, but extremely reliable, came out of Higgins' arm holster with a jerk.
"Shove 'em high!" he commanded. "It's a hold up. Captain, you get up there and take that wheel and steer honest and true upstream for the Colony. The rest of you get up in front where I can watch you. No tricks. Fooling's over."
"This is piracy, of course," called Roger from the engine pit as he filled a priming cup, "and you'll have a good case against us—if you take it into court. But from what I've seen and heard I don't think you'll monkey with the courts—don't think you like the word. So when we get to where you're going I'll give you boys five dollars apiece and call it square. What do you say?"
The captain looked round with the sickness of deadly fear in his eyes.
"Don't make us go up there like this," he begged hoarsely. "For God's sake, don't do that!"
Payne paused with a hand on the flywheel.
The dread in the captain's eyes was obviously genuine.
"Don't make us take you up there, mister," he repeated. "You wouldn't if you knew."
"We can't bring any one up there."
"You aren't bringing any one; you're being brought."
"It'll be hard luck for you, too, mister, if you run up there."
Higgins shouldered angrily forward.
"Keep that kind of pap talk behind your teeth. Trouble with you fellows is you've been used to handling suckers. You sort of get it that we're different, don't you?"
"I'm telling you," persisted the captain; "'twon't be any luck for you to run up there, and it'll be hell for us."
"Get up there and take that wheel!" roared Higgins. "Steer her right and true to the end of the strip and you won't get into any trouble. Try to ground her or any tricks, and you won't have to go 'up there' to catch hell."
"Hold on, Hig." Payne had sensed the desperation rising in the four men and he was averse to violence if it could be avoided. He was new in that country and he expected to settle there and develop his land. For a long time to come, until the contemplated railroad line came down from the north to his property, he knew the Chokohatchee River must be his means of communication with the outer world. The four men on the boat were natives of the section. He had not yet been able to fathom just what nature of men they were or what their business was, but he suspected the latter to be something illegal, and despite the poor showing they had made in the fight on the boat it was apparent that there was in them at least a tinge of the desperado. The swamps of Southern Florida, he knew, were favorite hiding places for scores of bad men. These men probably spent a good deal of time on the river which he must use, and therefore he had no wish to make them his deadly enemies.
"Don't take that wheel, cap!" said one of the men suddenly. "And keep your trap closed."
The scarred man turned and stared sullenly into the barrel of Higgins' revolver.
"Go ahead and shoot. That's the only way I'll go up there."
"Don't want to go alive, eh?"
"Ain't—allowed—to go—at all."
"Hold on, Hig," repeated Roger. "Don't be unreasonable."
"Unreasonable, hell! We're on our way, aren't we? Going to let 'em stop us?"
"We've got no quarrel with these men. We'll use a little reason."
"Go ahead, you're the boss." Higgins retired to the starboard rail, but he did not sheath Old Betsy.
"Can you tell me the reason you are afraid to go on?" asked Roger.
"Ain't afraid to go there. It's you that stops us."
"Why can't you take us there?"
"Got orders not to."
A sullen silence followed the question.
"Anybody connected with the Land Company?"
"Save your wind," growled the scarred man. "We ain't telling."
Roger debated a moment and decided that he had indulged in enough irregularity and violence for one day.
"Now, talking as man to man, how much would it hurt you to take us up there?"
The captain's bleak face cracked in a slight smile of despair and hopelessness that left no need for words as an answer.
"Well, what is it?" blurted Higgins. "Can't you tell us what you're afraid of?"
"You look like a pretty stiff man, mister," said the scarred man after appraising Higgins, "but I'll bet if you was in our boots you wouldn't do different'n us."
"Can you beat it?" gasped Higgins. "They don't look like Sunday-school kids either."
Roger, running his eyes over the hard faces, smiled at the comparison.
"How far is it up to this terrible place from here, captain?"
"It's four miles from this point."
"By air line or river?"
"How's the walking?"
A look of relief in his hard eyes betrayed the hope that the question aroused in the captain.
"Fair—I won't say good, but fair. Right here she's swampy. A mile up the high banks start, and there's sort of a trail right into the place."
"All right. You'll run us up to the high banks. We'll get off and walk the rest of the way. You'll lay up at the banks for half an hour after we've started."
"I guess you're all right, but I play safe. I don't know anything about what you're afraid of up there, but I don't want you to get in ahead of us and accidentally break the news of our coming."
"Good!" cried Higgins admiringly. "And Old Betsy here, she'll throw a slug clean through that wheelhouse wall, captain, in case you should get impatient and try to run by."
The captain looked inquiringly at the scarred man, who nodded sullenly.
"We'll be hitting back into the swamp," said the scarred one. "Come on, Pedro."
"No, you'll stay until we get to the high banks."
"Davis did us a favor this morning, and I want to give him a chance for a fair start. If you would tell me his business——"
"Ain't telling anything."
"All right. Take the wheel, captain. We're off."
The Cormorant backed out of the thicket of mangrove branches which held her against the point, straightened out and started upstream.
"A little explanation and maybe we could be friends," suggested Payne.
"We're much obliged——" began the captain, and the scarred man interrupted with:
"But we ain't explainin'."
"Cheer up, boys!" laughed Higgins. "We're doing you a favor, you know."
"Know you are."
"So you might tip us off about why it's going to be hard luck for us to hit this place we're bound for."
There was no reply. The captain sullenly kept the boat's nose in the deep channel, but beyond this the gang was apparently no more responsive to words than the alligators which lay sunning themselves at the water's edge. The river now grew narrower, its waters grew clearer, changing from a yellow to a faint indigo.
"Getting into a limestone formation," called Higgins over his shoulder. "But I don't see anything that looks like land yet. This stuff ought to be sold by the gallon instead of the acre."
Soon, however, a change began to appear in the landscape. The mangroves gave way to banks of solid land. A few scattering pines, tall, straight, thin and branchless save for their crowns, reared their tops high above the tropical growths.
"There's land there," said Roger. "Where there are pines there's honest ground beneath, even if it's only sand. It's good to see them."
"You're right. I begin to feel at home again. That thick stuff is pretty, but give me some real trees."
The sand area, and with it the pines, gave way to a stretch of muck and saw grass, the saw grass to a jungle of elderberry trees so thick the light barely filtered in. Blackbirds by thousands, large and plump and glistening, swarmed about in the jungle; and on the thicker branches the loathsome buzzards sat waiting, waiting.
Payne carefully inspected the shore before leaving the boat when the landing was made at the high banks.
"Step ashore, Higgins, and see if there's a trail."
"Sort of a one-hog path, I guess. It looks all right."
"All right." Roger gathered their bags from the stinking hole forward and followed.
"Now," he said, turning to the men on the boat, "we don't want to leave you with any hard feelings. We'll pay for our ride. Will ten dollars be about right?"
He plucked two five-dollar bills off a roll and handed one each to the scarred man and the captain.
"Hey!" called the latter. "You won't say anything about being on this boat to anybody?"
"Not if it will be a favor not to. I'm not particularly proud of sneaking a ride."
"We won't say anything if you don't."
"I thought you wouldn't. Now you just lay up here for half an hour and don't try to pass us. Business is business and I'm playing safe. So long."
There was no reply. The crew on the boat watched silently as the pair marched out of sight.
"Nice boys, those fellows," said Higgins after a while. "I wonder where they cut throats for a living? Can you make 'em out?"
Roger shook his head.
"I've heard there were a lot of bad men hiding out down here, and, strange, but I never believed it. Apparently it's true; and it seems we've stepped right into the midst of them."
"They called Davis a 'snooper.'"
"Well, I'm not worrying about Davis. From what I saw of him he's quite able to take care of himself."
"I'll say he is. You too. You've come pretty near making pals of the fellows we were fighting a little while ago."
"That was business. I don't want a whole lot of enemies strung out along the river between me and civilization."
"Well, it looks as if the captain was honest about the trail at least," said Higgins, leaping over a pool of quivering mud. "It's fair, but not good."
A cotton-mouth water snake, short, thick as a man's arm and indescribably loathsome, wriggled on top of the mud as Roger prepared to leap.
"Whoa, boy!" cried Higgins, glancing back. "Stand still while I get a club." He broke off a thick branch from a custard apple tree.
"My God! what wood!" he exclaimed in disgust. "It's light as paper."
However, he managed to creep up behind the snake and slash off at a blow the foul, flat head that reared itself above the slime.
"And I suppose this swamp is full of those things."
"Probably. But my land isn't in the swamp, remember; it's beyond the head of the river."
"There's some real ground ahead; I can see the tops of some pines."
Half an hour later they entered a stretch of open country. A few spindly pines grew near the river. To the north and west, as far as the eye could reach, was a prairie, covered with a sparse growth of grass. Small circular islands of palmetto scrub dotted the monotonous scene and at rare intervals a clump of somber cypress told of the presence of water. In a nearby bunch of palmetto a pair of horns were visible; and a herd of wild cattle, incredibly thin and fleet, leaped with a snort into the open, stared an instant at the intruders and sprang out of sight with the speed of deer. A covey of small, brown quail broke close at hand and sailed away, skimming the top of the grass. Fox squirrels were to be seen through the hanging moss on the cypress trees. A great whooping crane waded into view and flapped away in clumsy fashion. A flock of teal duck, flying swift and true as an arrow, came winging their way to the river. At the water hole where the crane had been feeding the yellow eyes of a wildcat, cheated of its prey, shone for a flash and withdrew. By use of his field glasses Payne saw a mother turkey, low-crouched and stepping softly, leading her brood to shelter in the scrub. Farther away the glasses picked out the antlers and head of a small deer, peering above the brush.
Higgins had kicked a hole in the ground with professional interest.
"Sand! No good."
"Right. Come on."
The river frontage of the prairie was a scant mile. Its eastern boundary consisted of a growth of custard apple. The small spreading trees, fifteen feet at the topmost branches, were literally hidden beneath a covering of the delicate moon vine. The vine wreathed itself about the trunks and branches. It covered the tops, it stretched over open spaces like closely woven tapestry; draped itself over everything, its small green leaves and tiny pink-white flowers inextricably matted together with the tree growth and making of the whole a delicate bloom.
A broad riding path had been cut through the tangle along the river out to the open prairie. From the entrance a glimpse was had of a magic interior. The sunlight struck fiercely down through the interstices in the all-pervading moon vine, piercing the jungle shade with a myriad of hard points of light. The path wound in and out, its course easy to follow by the shaft of light in the gloom.
Inside, the atmosphere was that of a great conservatory. A dozen tropical growths mingled their odors into an indefinable whole; and the effect was akin to that of a subtle exotic drug, lulling the senses, filling the whole being with a languor, a relaxation, a pleasant enervation which it seemed well not to throw off. Outside on the prairie the sun burned harshly; within, the scented shadows shielded away the sun and wrapped round one a drugged warmth all its own. The path and the open spaces beneath the stubby trees permitted sufficient circulation of air so the effect was not stifling; but no winds swept through there; the perfumes lay heavily in the air, old and potent, and breathing a mystic, sensuous lure.
Payne bent forward, peering into the mystic recesses of the growth, susceptible to its magic thrall in spite of his hardheadedness. Higgins, the engineer, kicked deeply into the black dirt of the bridle path.
"Muck. Good enough. If your stuff's like this you're a rich man."
"Don't you notice anything else about this place?"
"What do you mean?" Higgins, less sensitive than his employer, required more time to feel the jungle's spell.
"It seems to me like the air is perfumed with poison somehow; and the poison is very easy to take."
"It's the lotus effect," said Higgins presently. "I know it. I got a taste of it down in Yucatan once. It makes you want to sit down against the roots of a tree and have a woman bring you drinks. It's bad medicine when you've got work to do. I feel it now. The old lotus effect. Poco tiempo! Man, we're nearer the tropics than the maps show."
"There's somebody coming."
It was a young negress crossing the path round a turn. Swaying indolently she went her way, with drooping eyes and listless steps, seeing no one, lost in the mysterious dreams which brought a sensuous smile to her heavy lips. She vanished down a footpath leading from the roadway to a cabin, which could be discerned a short distance in the trees. A bull-like male voice of her race greeted her with lazy laughter from the cabin, and with soft, sensuous laughter of elation and relief she replied. Then the woods were silent once more, save for the omnipresent twitter of the birds.
Tiny trails deviated from the bridle path at intervals, weaving their way out of sight into the drugged depths of the plantations. Flaming red cardinals flew to and fro before the intruders, and a small green parrakeet clung upside down to a moon vine and whistled as they went past.
Roger, who was in the lead, stopped abruptly. Down one of the bypaths a strutting peacock had caught his eyes. A glimpse of water showed beyond the gaudy tail of the bird, and a few steps toward it revealed a circular bathing pool in the heart of the thicket. Large mats of colored straw, thick rugs and cushions, all brilliantly hued, lay scattered about on the pink-tinted concrete edges of the pool. A wicker chaise longue stood beneath a striped canopy of silk under a shelter of moon vine; other lounging chairs were scattered about. The water of the pool flowed, fresh and clear, from the wine skin of a bronze bacchante, hideously squat and fat and green with age, which with drunken eyes in a back-thrown head leered mysteriously down upon the water. And the atmosphere of the place was akin to that of a heavily scented boudoir.
Higgins was examining the daintily colored concrete with professional interest.
"That's darn fine work. See how those mosaics and tiles are set in. That's Italian work; we don't finish stuff as well as that in this country. Yes, sir; some rich gazaboo has spent a barrel of money bringing Dago workmen down here to make him a little swimming hole in the jungle."
"It fits in with the whole scheme—the jungle, flowers, birds and scents, doesn't it?"
"A sultan could wish for nothing better."
Though the air was heavy out in the bridle path, it compared to the shut-in pool like a breath from out-of-doors. Payne led the way hurriedly. The path curved slightly in the direction of the river. The light of a large opening appeared ahead, and presently they came abruptly upon a clearing. A large low building, Moorish in architecture and tinted like the concrete of the pool, dominated the scene. Beyond glistened the blue water of the tiny lake which was the headwaters of the Chokohatchee River. At a canopied boat landing lay moored a gleaming white yacht—the Egret.
"This," said Payne, "is where the Paradise Gardens Colony should be by all maps and reports."
"But it isn't," said Higgins. "It's where some gazaboo with a pot of money and a taste for oriental effects camps out. I'm wondering if there is such a thing as that much advertised colony."
"I'm going to find out."
"Look out! There comes a ferocious animal to chew you up!"
A white poodle of tiny size with a bark like a piping bird came bobbing out of the house.
"Here, Nero!" called Higgins.
And then the dark slender woman who had been on the Egret stepped out from behind a palm.
"Flossy!" she said with a stamp of the foot, which twinkled the pendants in her ears. "She won't bite you."
"I was worrying," said Roger.
"Ramos!" called the woman. "There are some strange men here. Come, Flossy."
Payne found himself facing a tall dark man, with a hook nose, rings in his ears and a stringy mustache. The man placed himself full in the path leading to the little lake, and lazily, insolently studied the intruding pair.
"You wish to see some one?" he drawled.
"You, greaser!" blurted Higgins in anger. "Hanged if I've seen such a sassy half-breed since I left Mexico."
The man's lazy-lidded eyes narrowed to a slit. He came forward.
"Unless you are known you had better go elsewhere," he murmured.
"Really?" said Payne.
"Don't bother to be polite to him," growled Higgins. "Can't you see he's a greaser? Get out of the way, hombre; we want to talk to some one with brains."
Payne caught the engineer by the shoulder and held him back.
"We just want directions for getting up to the headwaters," he said.
"I still repeat: unless you are known, you had better go elsewhere."
"That's what we want to do. We're going up to the headwaters. This place happens to be on our way."
"You are not known here?"
"Then go back." The Mexican pointed toward the path whence they had come.
"Go back where you came from—and quickly."
"No," said Payne slowly, "that doesn't suit our program. We're going that way." He pointed across the clearing toward the blue water of the lake.
"Call your boss, greaser," snapped Higgins. "Let's talk to him." He raised his voice to a shrieking falsetto. "Help, help!"
Payne looked toward the boat landing instinctively.
The girl of the dawn on Gumbo Key was coming toward them, laughing; and the trees and the vine flowers and the sun all seemed to laugh with her.
"Oh, it's you, is it?" she said. "And the red-haired man, too!"
"Auburn!" protested Higgins, baring his fiery poll. "The best barbers of the West have told me it's auburn."
Ramos bowed deferentially.
"You know these men, miss?"
The girl and Payne looked at one another a long while. At last she turned resolutely to Ramos.
"Yes; I know them."
"That's all right, Ramos, I know them."
"Perhaps you will tell me who they are?"
"Ah! Yes. Perhaps. Mrs. Livingstone called me. She did not know these men."
"I do. And I scarcely know you at all, Ramos. What are you; what is your job round here?"
"Caretaker, miss. Especially—when Mr. Garman is away."
"Annette!" It was the older woman again.
"Aunty," the girl whirling about resolutely, "I want to know a lot of things; why is there said to be a colony here when there is only Mr. Garman's winter home? Why is there all this mystery round here? Why does Ramos prowl round like a watchdog?"
"Come in the house, dear. Leave Ramos to deal with the strangers."
"Why don't you answer me, aunty?"
"You foolish child!"
"I'm not a child." The red was burning in the girl's creamy cheeks. "I won't be treated as a child. I want to know."
"Please, Annette, do not discuss your affairs before strangers."
"Strangers! Why, aunty, it's you who are strange to me. I can't understand you. It's all strange. My father letting me come here alone before he comes—he's strange, too, lately."
"I suppose Mr. Garman is strange to you too?"
A flush spread over the girl's face and she appeared to shrink and wilt; and in the swift glance she cast at Payne there seemed an appeal for help.
Payne spoke swiftly.
"We are truly sorry to intrude. We blundered in here on our way to the head of the river. If we can get directions we will be on our way at once."
The girl looked from her aunt to Ramos and then to Payne, and her chin went up.
"Come," she said, and led the way to the boathouse on the lake shore. "Oh, Willy Tiger!"
As mild and stoical a Seminole Indian as ever belied his surname responded to her call. He smiled at the sight of her, an appalling feat for a Seminole; and the smile confessed he was her abject slave.
"Willy, you will do a favor for me, won't you? I want you to take these two friends of mine up to the head of the river, wherever that is. My friends. For me, Willy."
The Seminole silently disappeared and returned paddling a long dugout into which he tossed his rifle and a bundle containing his camping outfit.
"My name's Roger Payne," said Roger, preparing to follow Higgins into the boat. "I am under obligations, Miss——"
She did not respond to his suggestive pause.
"I don't think I'll tell you my name—now," she said thoughtfully. "Perhaps—after you've seen the land you purchased from Senator Fairclothe. Perhaps—not. Good-by."
Roger looked at Ramos, watching them from a distance, and replied:
Higgins sat facing the silent Seminole, who swiftly paddled the long dugout out of the little lake before the house and into a sluggish creek running into it from the northeast. The Indian wore the mauve-tinted, gaudily embroidered dress shirt of his tribe, but as a concession to civilization he had donned a pair of overalls so much too large for him that the belt was high round his strapping chest.
"What name did she call you by, Willy?" asked the engineer.
"Me Willy Tiger."
"Tiger doesn't fit you, Willy."
Higgins dipped his hand overboard and sprinkled water on the Indian's head.
"I hereby christen you Willy High Pockets. And may they never be empty."
An awful contortion took place upon the Seminole's mahogany features. He was trying to grin.
"You give good Seminole why-o-me," he said, ceasing his paddling to rub his stomach. "Willy Tiger——"
"Willy High Pock' sick. Why-o-me make strong."
"So that's how they miscall hooch down in this country," ruminated Higgins. "No, Willy; we don't pack any liquor. Shall I give him a piece of plug?"
"Suit yourself—if you've got any."
"Got any? Never go into an Indian country without it."
Higgins produced from his bag a slab of plug tobacco which made Willy's mouth water.
"Willy," said Payne suddenly, "who is Mr. Garman?"
"Put your tobacco away, Higgins."
"Garman big boss," said the Indian swiftly. "Esoka-bonus-che-tobacco. You give."
"Boss of what?"
Without taking his eyes from the plug Willy's right arm described an eloquent arc embracing the earth, the water, the sky, about them.
"Big boss—all country! Good tobacco. Strong——"
"Boss of the whole country, eh? What business is he in?"
"Where is he now?"
"What makes him boss of this country?"
"And there you are," laughed Higgins. "Willy looks different from a regular Indian; but they're all alike. He loosened up to get this piece of plug; now he 'dunno' anything."
"Donno," repeated Willy monotonously.
As the dugout scraped and stuck on the bottom the Indian doffed his overalls and displayed the full gorgeousness of the Seminole dress shirt. Payne wondered how in the souls of these swamp dwellers there had developed a taste for a hue as delicate as the pink of the flamingo. Bands of red, yellow, scarlet, mauve and black were embroidered upon the cloth, and upon the shoulders were scarlet tufts resembling epaulets. Willy stepped overboard, barefooted and nude save for his rolled up shirt, and began to shove. A three-foot water moccasin lay coiled on a mud bank in his path and the Indian's bare foot flung it aside as one might kick away a stick. Presently he paused, deep in liquid mud to his thighs, his feet working on something below.
"Alpate," he said. "'Gator."
A commotion followed in the mud; a dark knob appeared above water. There was a thrashing and upheaval and the Indian threw a half-grown alligator upon the bank and dispatched it with a blow from his camp ax.
A few rods farther on the canoe was over the shallows and floating easily in a flooded jungle of saw grass which stretched away as far as the eye could reach.
"What's this?" demanded Payne.
"Oko make river end."
"Oko—lake. River end here. We there."
Payne drew out his maps and studied them.
"Where's Deer Hammock?"
"Echu Hammock there." The Indian pointed to a cluster of palmettos that reared its tops above the saw grass to the north.
They shoved their way through the grass; and as he contemplated the drowned land all round Payne grew warm and then cold with anger. Mile after mile to the east, north and south the watery waste stretched. Here and there a hammock bearing a few trees stood out, like tiny islands in a vast sea. Save for this there was only the uninhabited desolation of the water and grass; and the brilliant sky above.
There was no word spoken as they pushed toward the hammock. Higgins had noted the change on Payne's countenance and saw it was no time for careless words. Payne drove his pole into the bottom and drew it out for inspection.
"Limestone bottom; a thin scum of muck on top of it; and water."
The saw grass grew thicker. Only a water trail worn by dugouts permitted them to go through. Higgins probed the bottom.
"About six inches of muck here," he reported, "and a foot of water on it."
The water grew shallow on both sides of the channel and the grass more dense. The Indian rose to his toes and peered above the grass tops as they neared the hammock.
"Echu!" he said presently, reaching for his rifle. "Deer ojus on hammock."
Silently the dugout crept toward the high ground, the Indian parting the saw grass to peer ahead. They were fifty yards from it when Willy began to fire and at the third shot a tiny buck leaped up and crashed down in the palmetto scrub, where it had fancied itself concealed.
It was near the end of the day now and the phenomena of the tropical sunset served to add to the desolation of the scene. Tiny clouds rode in the sky, multicolored from the sun, for all the world as if painted upon the blue above. The west was livid with scarlet and orange flame, and on the hammock the tops of the trees were rosy in the sunset.
Higgins and Payne set to work to dress the deer while Willy proceeded to build a Seminole camp. On the highest ground of the hammock he dug a fire hole, and radiating from it like spokes from the hub of a wheel he dug three small ditches. With his ax he swiftly constructed three sleeping benches of branches, building them close to the central fire hole. Then he built his main fire of short logs in the fire hole. In each of the little ditches he threw long logs, their ends in the fire.
Payne and Higgins watched him, expertly appreciative of his novel woodcraft.
"It was a shame to take this country away from his kind," said Higgins. "They know how to live in it—and like it."
Payne nodded. He was looking back over the watery waste through which they had come.
"You got your tract located?" asked Higgins.
Payne pointed out over the saw grass waving above the drowned land on the southern side of the hammock.
"We'll look her over in the morning."
Higgins lay stretched comfortably upon his sleeping bench, and between puffs of a campfire pipe, strove to be consoling. On another bench Willy High Pockets, having gorged himself beyond human capacity on boiled venison, lay staring at the camp fire, open-eyed but in a stupor of complete contentment. Payne occupied the third bench. He lay flat on his back, staring upward through the palmetto branches at the soft stars which were appearing in the magic purple velvet of the Southern night.
In the center, the large fire hole was filled with red, smoldering embers. Radiating from it flames licked along the logs in the three shallow ditches which trisected the camp site, and as the central fire burned down the ends of the long logs were pushed into it and new fuel supplied. The heat from the fires spread along the ground beneath the slightly raised sleeping benches, smothering or drying up such dampness as might otherwise rise from the earth after sunset. Distributed as the heat was, it formed a barrier which shut out miasmatic fogs from creeping over the high ground from the swamp. It was the Seminole system by which these Indians had survived in their unhealthy environment.
"She may not look so bad when we go over her carefully," added Higgins.
"Thanks," said Payne. "Optimism is good medicine to sleep on. I'm stung, of course. The Prairie Highlands Company sold this stuff to me as virgin prairie sod ready for the plow. I discounted that by fifty per cent, considering the low price. I knew enough about this land to know, in spite of lying maps, faked soil reports and photographs, that there would be some water here. I hired you because I was prepared for a drainage proposition. But I didn't think they were crooked and nervy enough to sell me a lake—that senator writing letters on his official stationery."
"Maybe you've got on the wrong tract?"
"You know better; you went over the maps yourself. No; they've got the crust to show this hammock in their photographs; I recognized it at once. They showed it with fat, black grassland stretching away on every side of it. They've got photographs of a town that should be located here, and of roads and ditches and farms. Their crop exhibit—crops from Prairie Highlands—is a wonder: Corn, sugar cane, potatoes, grass. Fifty per cent I discounted it; one hundred per cent would have been right."
"They got soil experts to write reports on it," growled Higgins. "Or at least, to sign them. Those are pretty big names on your papers, men with big reputations. How could they do it?"
"They haven't been in here," said Payne bitterly. "The thing is beginning to get a little clear. Nobody's been in here who wasn't wanted. It's simple to keep them out, with the river the only trail to come in by; so they've built up a fiction about the district, and nobody's been here to check up on it—until now."