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First published in The Phantom Detective, September 1935

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
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The Phantom Detective, September 1935, with "Choctaw Rose"

A man-hunting federal officer tracks a
killer in the dense woodlands of Alabama!

AT the hog-tight fence of peeled cedar posts and wire, the Federal man-hunter, Kern, stopped with a puzzled frown. The fugitive whom he had traced to this hideout in the Alabama woods was said to be shiftless, vicious, drunken and deadly. This fence looked well-kept and permanent.

Beyond the wire a small but perfectly hoed field of yams stretched up a slight acclivity, away from the moss-draped bayous of the Tombigbee River.

Keeping to cover, Kern made a slow circuit of the field. The heavy fragrance of jasmine hung in the motionless air. Trees here on the higher ground were partially denuded by mistletoe in the upper branches, sapped by the beards of parasitic moss, and choked everywhere by strands of that endless, thorny, vindictive creeper, Choctaw rose.

The post office inspector cursed the white-flowered rose. It traversed the thickets, seeking more trees to murder. Redbirds fluttered and quail stalked from under his feet as this city man blundered through, his bulldog jaw set, his face implacable.

Now as he plucked the thorny vine from his shoulder and neck, a cowbell set up its dull, clanking sound.

He froze. For a moment he could have sworn that he had dragged that sound from a clump of maroon-starred anise at his right hand.

He forgot that instantly. Here, where the sun shone down in a patch of yellow heat, palmetto fans lay before him. He did not take the next step in that direction. Half concealed there, lay a rattler as thick as his right arm, its head couched lazily over the second coil.

Kern grimaced and sidestepped. The cowbell thunked once more, and then was silent. And instantly then, as he froze again in a crouch behind some pink-belled laurel, Kern caught sight of a tall man coming in his direction, inside the field.

It surely had to be the robber-killer, LeGendre, one of the half-blood Indian descendants of Evangeline's people. A squatter Cajan.

LEGENDRE wore a blue chambray shirt, faded overalls, and went barefoot. He was tall, well knit, with tanned features more Choctaw than French. Straight black hair came down to the lobes of his ears. His eyes were onyx black.

The cowbell had alarmed the outlaw.

He came slowly, watchfully toward the clump of anise where it had sounded. He carried what looked like a Remington automatic shotgun.

Kern knew he was not perfectly concealed; wished with all his heart he had been able to reach the trunk of a blackjack a dozen feet to his left. Too late now. The Cajan moved slowly, peering into the thickets.

Kern crouched, with finger on the trigger of his pistol.

Back somewhere at the unseen cabin, a door opened. Then a woman called nervously:

"See anything, honey?"

"Only a woods cow, I reckon," answered LeGendre's melancholy bass. He half turned, dropping the shotgun muzzle.

That was the manhunter's opportunity.

"Put 'em up! Steady! I can jam four shots into you before you can swing that gun! Drop it!"

An anguished groan burst from the outlaw's lips, and he wilted. The shotgun fell to the ground. A little scornful, Kern climbed the fence and secured the shotgun. No insides to these murders, after all.

The Cajan shouted a warning. "Don't come out, Helene! They got me, an' you cain't do nothin'."

"Shut up! Who's there beside your woman? Anybody comes this way, you get it—first!" rasped Kern.

"There ain't nobody. Jest my wife. She—she's—" The killer's face was agonized, hopeless. Beads of perspiration sprang forth on his forehead. Cautiously Kern started him marching, the shotgun poking his right kidney. Now the cabin appeared, half hidden back of high azaleas.

From there darted a young woman in a flowered calico wrapper. She was blue-eyed, yellow-haired, unexpectedly lovely. She clutched a rusty bolt-action rifle, probably an ancient Krag. She fumbled wildly with it, obviously unacquainted with the mechanism.

"It ain't loaded, honey," said the Cajan. "Drop it."

With a hopeless cry the girl obeyed. She ran up, whispered something swift in the Cajan patois. The man answered dully. She gasped, swayed a moment while Kern watched with face of granite, then pitched limply sidewise among the hills of yams.

Well, cynically thought Kern, this girl sure was a good- looker. No Cajan. It wouldn't take her long to land another man. Naturally the manhunter put no stock in this talk of marriage. Jules LeGendre was not the sort to bother with ceremonies.

Kern made the Cajan lift the girl and carry her back to the well behind the cabin. There he bathed her face until she opened her eyes.

"You jest stay here, honey," he soothed. "I'll send for you when it's time. You'll let her come to tell her story at my trial, won't you?" he queried over his shoulder.

"Oh, sure, all the trimmin's," assured the Federal man sarcastically. Lot of good any story would do LeGendre.

"All right then, I'll go. Good-by, Helene."

"Au revoir!" she corrected him firmly. "What you did was no crime. It cannot be! In my heart I know."

"The devil you know," gritted Kern to himself.

THE manhunter had parked his Ford out of the ox-cart ruts of the Mississippi Valley highway, and it was hub-deep in sand. Even in low gear the mechanism was powerless. Cursing, Kern forced the prisoner to dig away sand, pile brush under the wheels, and get the car back in the ruts, and faced south.

Finding out LeGendre could drive, Kern handcuffed his left hand to the steering wheel. Then he made the Cajan hurry.

Kern was courageous as any pit bulldog, but he had heard bloodcurdling tales of the vengeance of Cajans. Probably this very minute that girl was out, rousing the woodsbillies.

Until he got down past Dwight, into Mobile County, Kern would not feel safe.

LeGendre seemed to accept the situation. He drove well enough, bucking the rattly old car through deep sand, splashing through unbridged creeks.

But suddenly he stopped, killing the engine. His hands were white at the knuckles where he gripped the wheel.

"Sheriff!" he cried, a queer, half-appalled elation in his deep voice. He was staring fixedly at an apparently vacant stretch of scrub. But Kern himself had caught the barest glimpse of a furtive figure dodging back into the bushes. Another Cajan, of course; there were almost no other people here.

Prodding the captive with pistol muzzle, Kern snarled and made him drive. The manhunter expected at any second a deadly shot from ambush, but it did not come.

By the time they had traversed another eighth-mile, however, it became apparent that the Cajan was struggling with some new overpowering emotion. Something far different from the abject fear or apathy which hitherto had held him in thrall.

"Oh, Sheriff!" he gasped finally. "I must talk!" He stopped the car, but left the motor running.

"All right, spill it!" snapped Kern, not bothering to tell him he was a Federal man and not a sheriff. His right forefinger was within a fraction of pumping out death.

The killer gulped and smiled, blinking his eyes queerly. He seemed torn between insane joy and apprehension. The latter was understandable enough, save that the Federal sleuth had an odd feeling that this was by no means the same apprehension which had wilted him earlier. He was not wilted now.

"Why is it, sir," he demanded with a rising intonation, "that you arrest me now? What is it you believe I have done?"

"Murder!" retorted the Government man coldly. "Understand that, do you, or shall I make a diagram?"

LEGENDRE shook his black head decidedly. There appeared to be relief, and something oddly akin to triumph mingling with the worry in his face.

"I thought you might call it that," he admitted frankly. "But I thank the good God we both are wrong! I have committed no such crime—at least none so bad as that. Oh, yes, m'sieu, I did think that maybe I had killed a man. A species of snake, one might better say, that richly deserved the worst I could do. But it is not true! Only just a moment ago, he, the one you think I slew, was right there beside the road, the place I stopped before. And now he walks to my cabin, where my wife Helene is alone! He is not dead, I tell you. Since he is not dead, you will let me go, will you not? You can see I must hurry back. My wife alone—and that one coming! If I am there to help, I suppose you will have to arrest me then. But I do not care! Helene—"

"Get going!" snarled Kern contemptuously. "What a story!"

It made the Federal man impatient with himself, but in a way this too eloquent woodsman was getting under his skin.

Maybe not the coward he had seemed at first; there might be something deeper here, some subtle scheme to outwit the law, though LeGendre seemed frank and sincere. But how could that be? Kern himself had seen the mutilated bodies of the two railway mail clerks.

"Keep right on driving. You can tell the rest of that yarn to somebody else. Brande and Skelly both were married men, and Brande left twin kids less than two years old." Gradually his own voice had grown throaty with stern anger. The picture of the dynamited car was very plain in his mind.

Nevertheless, the Cajan stopped the car again.

"I'm sorry, Sheriff," he said agitatedly, "but I don't know what you mean."

"I thought you'd be sorry some time," said Kern grimly.

He saw this was the crisis, the place where the prisoner either would cave, or make his break in whatever fashion he had in mind. Right then Kern was in the mood to let him try. One thing was certain. LeGendre was not going to get away from here unshackled and alive.

The Cajan talked rapidly, his black eyes flashing earnestness.

"I do not know these two you name!" he insisted. "I have never even tried to kill two men; the one was all. For a time, till last January, I was conductor on a car of the Gulf Coast Electric. I had no troubles. My girl, she lived in Gulfport. As soon as I saved enough, she married me. Then I worked a while longer, for we wanted this little place in the woods. I bought it—"

"You never heard of the Chef Menteur robbery?" sneered Kern. "It's a surprise to you, of course?"

"Robbery, now?" blinked LeGendre. "Sheriff, are you crazy?"

"I'm not a sheriff," gritted Kern. "Shut up and drive!"

The Cajan did not obey. He shook his long black hair.

"All is wrong!" he declared passionately. "Until you say, m'sieu, I always think—like my wife, Helene, believe too—that I kill my half-brother, my relative, Jules LeGendre. And now today I see him just beside the road. All the time we are wrong, we!" As he argued, his speech came closer and closer to the Cajan patois.

"Humph!" grunted Kern. "You're starting kinda late to try to kid me thataway, to make me think you aren't Jules LeGendre your own self."

"I am not! I am Georges LeGendre!"

"Well, well," said Kern in cold disbelief. "Why was it then you got to running with the Bourdanier boys? Why did you stop that train on the trestle, hold up the crew and then dynamite the mail car? Why did you stay with the Bourdanier gang when it made its getaway in that stolen speedboat?

"I may as well end this nonsense, LeGendre. You were there, and your name is Jules. I'm sorry for your woman, and all that, but she ought to know better than take up with a robber-killer like you. We've landed all the rest of the gang, and Shurtleff confessed, implicating you as the actual dynamiter. Do you think I'd—"

"Then you will not let me go back now?" The Cajan's voice had taken on an edge which might have warned Kern. "Not even when I tell you my wife, Helene—"

"Get going," snarled Kern, "or I'll knock you over the head and take you in cold pork!" He jabbed the pistol muzzle into LeGendre's side.

Face turning grey under the deep-layered golden tan, the prisoner pushed his foot on the gear, and the old Model T lurched forward. Then he appeared to reach sidewise for the gear lever.

With a sudden shout of defiance he slammed his fist back- handedly to the manhunter's mouth. Fortunately for the Cajan, his elbow knocked aside the pistol muzzle at the same instant his taut, bony knuckles jarred Kern across the cheekbone and mouth, loosening three teeth.

The pistol exploded, tearing a hole in the back of the seat. But as Kern strove to lift it, LeGendre wrested it away and struck one stunning blow. The Federal man gasped and lay quiet.

It took only a minute then for the Cajan to secure the key and unlock the cuff.

Then he put the pistol in his own hip pocket, reached down to Kern's feet and picked up the shotgun, and couched it over his left elbow.

KERN stirred and groaned a little. Ten seconds more and his eyes came open. He blinked through a trickle of blood from a cut over his right eyebrow. He seemed to be still alive. Why had the killer spared him?

LeGendre was outside the car now and appeared to be nearly insane with excitement and anxiety.

"Get up! Wake up! You drive back!" he cried. "Once we find that Jules, that species of a one, you take back your gun. Hurry now! Hurry!"

Dizzily Kern groped over to the wheel.

The Cajan leaped into the other seat, stowed the shotgun as before, and gripped the pistol. Kern was not quite awake yet. The chief fact that stood out in his mind was that this crazy LeGendre was not killing him; and what was almost more important to the manhunter, who took his job with utmost seriousness, the man was not hot-footing it away into the scrub. The Cajan was actually commanding him, Inspector Kern, to return to the cabin and help look for the other man!

Almost any moment after he had swung the car and started back, the Federal man might have grappled with his erstwhile prisoner. LeGendre strained ahead, paying little attention. The blue veins stood out at the sides of his naked neck. But now Kern had the worried feeling that the Cajan had been telling the truth.

So the old Ford ground and bucked its way back.

"Stop now!" commanded LeGendre.

He opened the door and leaped out to the sand.

Grimly the Federal man obeyed. Astonished, he saw LeGendre hurry away in the direction of the cabin, paying the man in blue serge no more attention at all. With a grimace Kern leaped out also, and sprinted after him, barehanded.

THAT moment, from the woods sounded a woman's scream! Answering, a shout burst from the Cajan. He stopped.

"Here! That is Helene! Take this!" he cried, and thrust the loaded automatic into the hands of the astonished operative. Then he turned and sprinted in the direction of the cry, with Kern following as fast as he could.

The Federal man was puffing when he came within sight of the Cajan cabin. LeGendre, eighty feet in the lead, was over the fence and racing for the rear of the place.

Kern followed, blundered across the yam patch, and then saw about twenty feet from the back door something terrible and strange happening on the bare red clay of the dooryard.

The girl, Helene, was on her knees and struggling desperately with something which seemed to be trying to drag her into a hole in the ground!

Her cries were silenced now, for all strength was employed in warding off this menace.

Low-hanging strands of Choctaw rose, bristling with thorns, impeded Kern. The creeper hung everywhere between the trees in back of the cabin. Kern got caught, and had to tear them from his coat and trousers. Then he dashed forward again.

He saw LeGendre seize the girl, drag her back and away from the hole, which looked like a disused well. Then the Cajan stooped and grabbed a filled sack of corn with the top sewed for market. This and then two hampers of okra pods, ready also to go to Citronelle market, were thrown into the hole. Whatever it was that had reached up after the woman, now was buried deep.

When Kern reached the old well, only a stifled groan arose from its choked depths.

"Oh, my man is free! He did not kill! He did not!" cried Helene, clutching at the arm of the Federal agent. Her beauty was radiant, despite a welling scratch where thorns of the rose had caught her cheek.

Kern scratched his head.

"Uh—all right, tell me about it," he agreed dubiously. "The real one I want—Jules—is down there, you say?" He gestured toward the well.

"Yes, but there is little water. He will not drown."

"All right, let him stay put a minute. What's it all about?" He turned to the man he had held captive. "You two fellas are half-brothers; is that right?"

Georges LeGendre eagerly corroborated that. With the girl leaning against his shoulder he could even smile.

Both LeGendres had spent their boyhood here in the woods, but had left for the city of Mobile when they reached manhood. Georges had been for a time a common laborer on the track of the interurban railway, at the time it was washed out by a hurricane that hauled the Gulf waters twenty feet above usual level.

Then came the great strike, and Georges became a conductor. He saved money. He wooed the pretty school mistress in Pass Christian. He married her, and they bought this place in the woods. He got Cajan friends to fence the place and plant his first crops.

They planned to set up housekeeping soon.

All the trouble had come because of the half-brother, Jules, who always had been wild. He got into some trouble, he said, and had to hide.

One of the bath-houses at the end of a pier at Gulfport—boarded up in winter—was the best place. Georges and his wife lived at Gulfport now. They could smuggle out food and liquor to him.

"Helene did that, because I was away working," said Georges, a black frown coming to his forehead. "But one night she was not back to meet me. I found her out at the pier, and took her home. He I smashed down and choked. I thought he was dead. So we ran away to here in the woods. The law would have said it was murder!"

"Mebbe not," said Kern. "But this Jules." He pointed down. "How did you get him into that hole?" he demanded of Helene.

"Oh, him? Well, I went out to follow you two. Then I saw Jules. First I thought he was a ghost, and I ran. He ran after me, but not fast. I saw he was not a ghost, but just drunk. So I was capturing Jules when you came!"

She smiled up at her husband, a dimple appearing in one cheek.

"Yeah, but how did you do it?" persisted Kern.

"Well, you see the rose? It has many thorns."

She pointed at the long, looped vines like slack clotheslines pinned with white flowers.

"Yeah, I did notice those things," admitted Kern grimly.

"It used to be all over the place back here, climbing over the cabin, too," she continued. "Two days ago we cut down a little of it, though we had not got around to clearing all the back yard. Some of the creepers we thrust down the old well. The rest we piled right there, to dry and burn. We have not used the old well since digging the deeper one there."

She pointed.

"When I saw Jules chasing me, I came in and took the board cover off the old well. He blundered on and did not see, as the loose vines choked up to the top. He fell in; and then I threw some more of the rose on top of him. But he almost got out. He had hold of my wrist. But Georges came back in time. So that is all."

She smiled happily at her husband.

But Georges LeGendre was not smiling. Vengeance was uppermost in his mind.

"I wish you to go back, and leave this one to me. I shall see that Jules commits no more crimes!" he promised hoarsely.

"No doubt you would," said Kern dryly. "But I've my own job to do. I'll do it better this time."

Then the two men lifted away the hampers of okra and the bag of corn; lastly, some of the Choctaw rose.

Beneath these lay the unconscious dynamiter-killer, Jules LeGendre.


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.